Recently, various films examining the impact of drug addiction on family life have been disseminated. From Beautiful Boy to Ben is Back to Six Balloons, these films present important narratives from the perspective of the American opioid crisis – a vital and complex topic which is necessarily being explored in popular culture. However, the protagonists of these different films all feel like frustrating echoes of the same character; we are repeatedly presented with a portrait of addiction that is a middle class, white, male young adult or teen.
“why are the films which are examining addiction in a sensitive way portrayed from such a singular viewpoint?”
Despite being capable of generating important and necessary discussions, the confluence of these films is troubling. These sensitive films are not just voyeuristically painting a picture of crime and hedonism, but taking into consideration the impact upon the family. In an industry which is itself – as the conversation around #OscarsSoWhite demonstrated – overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class, why are the films which are examining addiction in a sensitive way portrayed from such a singular viewpoint?
Like Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back focuses on the impact of a son’s drug addiction on the parent, the parent-child relationship, and the deeper tremors addiction creates within a family. It is interesting to note that the protagonists of both, Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges respectively, appeared in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). The two films could almost be spin-offs of Lady Bird, with all three dealing with the struggles facing these young Americans upon graduating from high school. Hedges and Chalamet are 22 and 23 years old, both white and male, and both play characters with great potential lost to addiction. Both steal from their families in order to feed their addictions further. The differences run further than this; likely coincidentally, both characters have half-siblings, the offspring of their main caregiver and step-parent.
Six Balloons takes a different approach, focusing more on the sibling relationship than the parental one, with an older protagonist (Dave Franco, who plays Seth, is 33 years old) and concentrating on active addiction rather than recovery. Yet the issue with representation remains, and the narrative is frustratingly reminiscent of these other films. While it is true that men are more likely to abuse both illicit drugs and alcohol than women – last year, 74% of patients admitted to UK NHS hospitals due to misuse of illicit drugs were male – only portraying a narrow view of addiction in cinema does a disservice to the complexity and prevalence of the issue. According to the US’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day, more than 130 people in the US die after overdosing on opiods – in 2017 alone, the US saw over 70,000 drug overdose deaths.
“the opioid crisis is wider-reaching than these films imply.”
While films such as Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back are useful in challenging particular stereotypes of drug addiction, and their wide release means that these conversations are being put into the public domain, the opioid crisis is wider-reaching than these films imply. The overwhelming similarity of these three releases in the same year should encourage filmmakers and studio producers alike to look further afield than the boundaries of their own empathy or experience, and look for the nuance within, and unheard voices of, addiction.
Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.