Movies like Beautiful Boy and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opened up a space in cinema for stories that often stay repressed
There has long been a trend in Hollywood that sees movies of a similar ilk released at the same time. Sometimes it can be about the same character or person, like last year’s Churchill and Darkest Hour, or 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror. It can even be a parallel plot element that links them, like teen time-travelling in the 1985/1986 films Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married, or nuclear armageddon, as seen in 1967 with the release of both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe.
In 2018, one kindred theme that emerged was men’s mental health and addiction, arriving just as a concerted effort has been made to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue. In the UK, men accounted for three quarters of all suicides in 2017, according to the Office For National Statistics, and while the male suicide rate was at its lowest since 1981, (15.5 deaths per 100,000), the number was still three times higher than that for women. Part of the reason for this huge discrepancy is because of the stigma associated with men asking for help. It’s seen as a sign of weakness; men are told to “man up” rather than actually talk to someone about their problems.
This year, several high profile films explored the pressing issue through the lens of individual stories: A Star is Born, Beautiful Boy, and Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. Each movie centres on a man suffering from some form of depression, and using drugs, alcohol, or both to deal with it.
In A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut and plays the role of Jackson Maine, a popular rockstar with a prolonged drink and drug habit that shows no signs of letting up. Even when he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally, and subsequently falls in love with her, he can’t seem to shake the demons that come with fame, or the depression that stems from an erratic upbringing and bad father, so he constantly resorts to self-medication to placate them. The film details the ups and downs of his substance abuse, and shows the effect not only on Jackson’s well-being, but Ally’s too, which is an all-too-real examination of how badly addiction affects not only the person addicted, but their loved ones too.
Beautiful Boy, similarly, shows the effects of substance abuse on loved ones, though in this case it’s explored through the real-life relationship of a father and son. Dave Sheff (Steve Carell) is a dad desperately trying to understand how the bright and brilliant boy he raised could have strayed onto such a dangerous path. Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is a son struggling under the weight of his father’s expectations, grappling to find the will to live sober after years of using hard drugs to fill the black hole of unhappiness that has been expanding in his soul ever since puberty. There’s a line delivered by one of the doctor’s at Nic’s rehab facility, who tells Dave after his son flees, “relapse is part of recovery”. Beautiful Boy doesn’t shy away from the harrowing and heartbreaking relapses that occur during this person’s journey to recovery.
“Whether it’s Jackson breaking down in rehab, Nic telling his dad he can’t live up to his expectation of him or John forgiving himself, these films are saying it’s okay for men to not be okay”
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is another biopic, this time based on the memoir of John Callahan, an alcoholic paraplegic going through the 12 steps program while finding a new lease on life through his bawdy newspaper cartoons. It’s a testament to Gus Van Sant, and his stars Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill – who play John and his sponsor Donnie, respectively – that this film doesn’t veer into cliché territory, as frankness and humour are injected into practically every scene. Van Sant doesn’t want you to pity John, or even like him at times. Instead, he wants you to understand how difficult sobriety can be, especially when your physical circumstances have monumentally changed.
Each of these films offers a unique perspective on what it’s like to be a man struggling with his mental health and addiction – be it through a dramatic, romantic or comedic lens – but what unites them is how they allow each addict to display their vulnerability without judgement. It is a testament to each actor’s performance that it is delivered in such a poignant and heartfelt way. Whether it’s Jackson breaking down in rehab, Nic telling his dad he can’t live up to his expectation of him or John forgiving himself, these films are saying it’s okay for men to not be okay. You don’t have to have it together at every moment; sometimes you don’t get recovery right the first time, and most importantly, you don’t have to bottle it up.