How Hollywood Romanticizes Addiction

By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist

We all love good storytelling. Cinema can mirror the real world or create a universe of its own. Movies can transport us to another world, beyond ordinary consciousness and emotions. They can be an agent for positive cultural change, or they can spread false narratives that are largely adopted by society. They can help solve our problems, or they can exacerbate them.

Two films that were released this past year -- "Ben Is Back" and "Beautiful Boy" -- are examples of movies that tell heart-wrenching stories, but fail to provide solutions. Instead, they reinforce unhelpful narratives that we glean from the news media and politicians.

Both are mainstream films with wide distribution and built-in audiences due to their talented casts and subject matter. They both tackle a theme that often works well for Hollywood: a child in life-threatening danger.

Each of these films focuses on the drama of a troubled young person who struggles with addiction. In both cases, the addiction creates a tragedy that feeds a romantic thread.

As a frequent film goer, I appreciate both movies' artistic delivery. However, their messages don’t necessarily reflect the realities of addiction in America. The movies perpetuate stereotypes and demonstrate that the color (pun intended) of addiction matters.

Through both of these films, Hollywood provides viewers with romantic views of addiction that are played out as love stories between parents and their children.

Josephine Livingstone, culture staff writer at The New Republic, recently wrote, “To make a movie about drugs almost guarantees that you romanticize them, because otherwise there would be no narrative at all -- just long nights, empty bank accounts, and a feeling like cold hunger.” 

COURTESY ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

COURTESY ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

"Ben is Back" stars Julie Roberts as the loving but frightened mother and Lucas Hedges (Ben) as a young man in an upper middle-class white family.

Ben is polite and likeable. His only apparent flaws are the behaviors associated with his addiction to opioids. The audience is primed to wonder how this could happen to an All-American boy. This young man and his family surely couldn't be responsible for the problem. 

The film poignantly blames a senile physician for initiating the boy’s addiction years earlier by prescribing Ben an opioid following a painful injury. The doctor is portrayed as the villain who pushes Ben toward a path of destruction. 

This works because the characters in "Ben Is Back" are of the same demographic and ethnicity as most of the viewers who would watch the movie. The film reinforces the clichés the audience has come to believe about addiction and its etiology. 

History tells us that poor inner-city minority members, by contrast, are usually blamed for their addictions. If the film starred a black or brown young man, the plot would have likely focused on the criminal activity and character flaws of the drug abuser. 

Julia Roberts told USA Today that she was able to relate to the problem of watching a family member suffer from addiction because, in real life, her older brother had suffered from the disease. However, Roberts acknowledges, "The position of the mother in this film is very different from a sister," reinforcing the parent/child love theme.  

The other film, "Beautiful Boy," is based on a true story. In contrast to "Ben Is Back," the movie is about a relationship between a father and his son. Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet (Nic) play the father and son. As Rolling Stone says, "It’s the two leads who, thanks to their astonishing, ripped-from-the-guts performances, make this movie a standout." 

Nic has a great relationship with his father. The father introduces his son to marijuana, which the movie inaccurately suggests is the seed to Nic's eventual use of methamphetamine.  

The story is told from the father's point of view. The father blames himself because he buys into the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug. Unfortunately, many movie goers probably also inaccurately believe that using marijuana could lead to meth addiction. 

Meth is not an opioid. However, the story line is similar to that of "Ben Is Back." Nic is a good white kid from a loving home, but he, too, is caught in a web of addiction. 

While Nic's story is emotionally riveting, we know that he lives a privileged life. Like Ben, Nic is a sympathetic character.   

COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS

COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS

These two movies blame outside causes for addiction. The movies fail to explore the real motivators to using drugs. Both characters acknowledge, in a discreet and almost offhand way, that they use drugs to feel alive. This subtlety is a huge statement. It describes the reason for their drug use that most viewers probably miss. 

Why should these two movies matter so much to us?  

These films may be entertaining, but they fail to tell the true story of addiction. Addiction is not sentimental. It is a tragedy, regardless of color. There are no tidy endings in real life. Propagating misleading narratives about addiction has made it more difficult for people in pain to be treated. 

If Hollywood producers are going to make films about addiction that don’t feed false narratives, they will have to stop romanticizing addiction.  

Lynn Webster.jpg

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.