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'Stay Awake' explores the fallout for brothers after their mom overdoses


Filmmakers have been crafting coming-of-age movies for years about teens struggling with peer pressure or parental expectations or just coming to terms with adult feelings. Critic Bob Mondello says the teen brothers in "Stay Awake" have an extra hurdle, and it's a big one.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Rural Virginia. We first see Ethan as he's arriving home from high school.


WYATT OLEFF: (As Ethan) Ma?

MONDELLO: He listens for a moment, walks into the kitchen and shuts off the water that's running in the sink. Then he heads to the bowling alley. And at the counter, he just looks at older brother Derek, who almost seems to have been expecting him and who ducks into the manager's office.


FIN ARGUS: (As Derek) Hey, Les. I got to cut out.

MONDELLO: And they swing into action. Mom's overdosed on prescription drugs again, and they know the drill - got to keep her conscious on the drive to the hospital.


ARGUS: (As Derek) Hey. Stay awake.

OLEFF: (As Ethan, singing) Nothing seems to fit.

ARGUS: (As Derek) Ma, listen to us.

FIN ARGUS AND WYATT OLEFF: (As Derek and Ethan, singing) Those raindrops are falling on my head. They keep falling.

ARGUS: (As Derek) This is easy. You know this. Ma?

ARGUS AND OLEFF: (As Derek and Ethan, singing) Raindrops are falling on my head.

ARGUS: (As Derek) Come on. What's that one?

CHRISSY METZ: (As Michelle) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids.

ARGUS: (As Derek) There we go. All right, next one - come on. Let's go.

OLEFF: (As Ethan, singing) Everybody's talking at me.

MONDELLO: When they get to the emergency room, supporting Mom between them, they are still on familiar ground straight into a room with Mom greeting the nurses, who barely look up.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, babies. We'll get things going here. Hang loose.

MONDELLO: Their work now done, the boys fall asleep on chairs in their mother's hospital room, and the next morning Mom wakes and rises to cover them with her blanket. Then she takes them out for breakfast as if nothing much has happened. And in a sense, nothing much has. Ethan and Derek are used to parenting their mother, putting their lives on hold to care for her, but they're reaching an inflection point. Ethan's been accepted at an Ivy League school on a full scholarship several states away.


METZ: (As Michelle) I can't believe it - my boy, the first in our family to go to college. This is - I'm just so proud of you.

OLEFF: (As Ethan) Thanks.

METZ: (As Michelle) Do you know what you want to study? You going to be a lawyer, a doctor?

OLEFF: (As Ethan) F*** doctors.

ARGUS: (As Derek) He wants to be an English major, Ma, 'cause the world needs more unemployed writers.

OLEFF: (As Ethan) Not all English majors end up broke. I'll be fine.

METZ: (As Michelle) And, honey, you should just do what you want to do.

MONDELLO: Easier said than done. If Ethan leaves, Derek could be stuck working at the bowling alley forever. He's made it clear he can't see leaving their mom.


OLEFF: (As Ethan) We agreed, though, you know? You go pursue acting when I head to college, right?

ARGUS: (As Derek) Yeah.

OLEFF: (As Ethan) She needs to try rehab again.

MONDELLO: Most films about addiction focus on the addict - the heroin-addled hero in "Trainspotting," say, or the alcohol fueled barflies in "The Lost Weekend" and "Days Of Wine And Roses." But "Stay Awake" concentrates on the collateral damage done - not to mom but to her sons.


OLEFF: (As Ethan) We need to figure something out.

ARGUS: (As Derek) Like I haven't been trying for years.

OLEFF: (As Ethan) Then let me try. If we don't figure this out, we're going to be stuck here.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Jamie Sisley is expanding on a short film he made eight years ago but also on his own life. He said in interviews that he and his brother were this sort of caretaker and that the experience helped him come to terms with addiction as an illness.


METZ: (As Michelle) I've blown it; haven't I? I mean, I'm an awful mother.

MONDELLO: That's more her take than the film's, which spreads the blame - a doctor who kept prescribing expensive treatment centers - and lets Chrissy Metz bring empathy to the character.


METZ: (As Michelle) I want to be a good mom that goes to PTA meetings and makes good meals and gives great relationship advice. But every single time that I see them, I'm just reminded that I have failed.

MONDELLO: Wyatt Oleff's Ethan, eager to spread his wings, and Fin Argus as his laid-back brother are appealing figures, easy to imagine in a more conventional coming-of-age flick or maybe writing an unconventional one called "Stay Awake." I'm Bob Mondello.


GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV: (Singing) I'm a ghost of you. You're a ghost of me - a bird's-eye view of San Luis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.