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Is Addiction Depicted Accurately In Movies?

When it comes to on-screen drug use, there are times when it’s so believable you could swear someone struggling with addiction was on set to direct the scene. From the physical way the user interacts with their drug of choice to the way their addiction impacts their life – sometimes movies go great lengths to depict sensitive subject matter accurately.

On the other hand, sometimes drug use and the cycle of addiction are falsified, glamourized, or just plain inaccurate, to the point where it’s almost dangerous.

In the modern era, many of our opinions on things are formed by how those things are portrayed (and what information is given to us) through the media, and that includes TV shows and movies.

What Movies Often Get Right About Addiction

Even though movies can sometimes be over-the-top, outlandish or glamourized to the point of being totally unrealistic, there are some that do a good job of depicting real-life problems like addiction. When this happens, real conversations are started, and valid information is spread about subjects that affect us all.

Addiction is frequently misunderstood, and addicts tend to be harshly judged by those who struggle to understand what it’s like to have an addiction.

Through honest, realistic movies that strive to bring awareness and compassion to those who watch them, we can better understand how addiction works. This can be a great stepping stone into understanding those in our own lives who struggle with this disease.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Accurately Depicts the Dark (and Often Dangerous) Path of Addiction & The Devastating Consequences

When you watch Requiem for a Dream, you are pulled into the raw, dirty, terrifying world of addiction. Director Darren Aronofsky is well-known for his way of pushing the limits while directing, and it shows. Instead of focusing a large part of the movie on how “fun” getting high can be, the movie highlights the steady decline of each of the four Coney Island people’s lives as they slowly succumb to their addiction.

Every character in this movie is led on a dark path by their addiction, and their downward spirals are shown in (at times gory) and awful detail. The final scenes of this movie will most likely leave you with a solemn feeling and a pit in your stomach, but using drugs is anything but glamourous, and sometimes it takes the most hard-hitting scenes to drive that point home.

Trainspotting (1996)

Accurately Portrays the Desperation and “Lows” of Addiction

This movie follows a group of friends who are trying to navigate their way through life through the desperate situations they put themselves in to keep their addiction going.

From broken relationships to HIV and an overdose-related death, this film accurately depicts the way addiction can lead you to your lowest points in life. It’s incredibly clear how the impacts of addicted friends, and the lifestyle of many addicts, have perpetuated this seemingly never-ending cycle of addiction.

It is an accurate portrayal of how desperate some addicts can be to keep using, despite the negative (and sometimes life-threatening) circumstances caused by their addiction.

Less Than Zero (1987)

Accurately Portrays the Self-Destruction and Total Loss of Self that Comes From Addiction

This movie is about a college freshman who discovers that his best friend has a cocaine problem and is getting himself into a lot of debt. The movie deals with the financial strain addiction can have, the physical toll it can take on you, and the emotional strain it puts on your relationships with others.

The movie also takes an inside look at the “drug life”, from the main character’s addiction to the dealer he gets his drugs from. Less Than Zero does a good job of showing how addiction can take over every aspect of your life.

28 Days (2000)

Accurately Portrays The Hardships of Recovery and the Potential You Have to Create a Substance-Free Life

Sandra Bullock’s character is pushed toward rehab through several alcohol-related self-destructive incidents in her life. She is reluctant at first and refuses the help the program offers. Eventually, she accepts the destruction her addiction has caused to her life and commits to getting sober.
This movie does a great job of portraying just how difficult it can be to begin your road to recovery and how becoming sober means changing a lot of different aspects of your life. Sandra Bullock plays this character convincingly, in a way that allows the audience to really see the journey from rock bottom to building a sustainable life without alcohol or drugs.

A Star is Born (2018)

Accurately Portrays The Cycle of Addiction

This movie has been made and remade quite a few times, but for the sake of staying modern, let’s talk about the 2018 version. One of the best performances in this movie is by Bradley Cooper, whose character is always drinking and doing drugs in order to “focus” on his talents and passions in life. Stress, creativity, love, loss and personal setbacks all influence the two main characters and often trigger them both back into addictive, self-destructive behaviours.

This movie does a great job of showcasing the true struggle of staying sober even in the hardest of times.

Thirteen (2003)

Accurately Portrays Peer Pressure and How Addiction Impacts Younger Teens

This coming-of-age movie is told from the teenage female perspective and goes to great lengths to immerse you into modern-day teenage life, which includes peer pressure to fit in, drug use, addiction and finding your sexuality.

With the encouragement of bad influences in her life, the main character goes from being a naive young woman to a struggling addict dealing with daily stressors in ways that are extremely harmful to her life. This movie is a hard look at how addiction grips people, even from a young age, and impacts their lives in ways they may not even understand right away.

What Movies Often Get Wrong About Addiction

When it comes to addiction on the big screen, one of the biggest problems is that drug and alcohol use is often glamourized.

There are many movies that are the opposite of the ones listed above: these movies simply use drugs and alcohol to show “fun”, “exciting” and “adventurous” times. While showcasing those moments aren’t great, putting the spotlight directly on the fun times you can have while getting high (and shying away from the consequences that come after) sets a dangerous precedent when it comes to addiction and real life.

Another problem that many people have with the portrayal of substance abuse or addiction in movies is that it tends to be done in highly unrealistic ways. While the goal isn’t to start using cinemas as tutorials on how to do drugs, portraying inaccurate methods of getting high can be dangerous for many reasons.

For example, many people might think that injecting substances is easy, and they attempt to do it the way they’ve seen it in the movies. This can lead to potentially fatal consequences, as there are ways of injection that are safer than others.

Addiction in Movies vs Real Life Addiction

When it comes to addiction, it can be difficult to properly understand unless you or someone close to you has experienced it. Even then, each situation is different in so many ways.

When it comes to seeing addiction portrayed on the silver screens, there are quite a few things you should keep in mind. 

  • It’s not real life, and it’s not your story. Watching things in movies can be a cathartic experience, especially if you relate to the subject content. However, it’s important to note that your life isn’t a movie and things don’t always come as easily or clearly as they seem to be in movies.
  • Every situation is different. Treatment isn’t one size fits all. No addiction story is the same. Every person who struggles with this disease needs a personalized, tailored approach to sober living.
  • Drug use isn’t glamourous. Even movies that portray drug use in a realistic way often glamourize the use of drugs, and they don’t touch as heavily on the consequences and life struggles that come with being an addict.
  • Your life isn’t a two-hour movie. Something that can be difficult to comprehend is that you’re watching an entire life story unfold within the span of a few hours on the screen. While you may connect with the characters and the story, your life isn’t a movie and it’s not going to happen as quickly. Sobriety is a long, difficult road that is best walked at a pace you can keep up with. Don’t rush your journey for the sake of trying to get to the good part of the movie.

Picture: scene from “Requiem For A Dream”.