Every now and then, a film comes along that could pass for the quintessence of what we used to mean when we invented the phrase “indie cinema.”
That label implies personal stories, an intimacy created between characters and the viewer, a talented cast that can be from “Hollywood” but rarely “OF” Hollywood, and locations off the cinematic beaten path.
“Stay Awake” is a soft, sentimental stroll through a “coming of age” story, a film that could have been inspired by “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” for reasons both obvious and more subtle.
Like many a coming-of-age tale, it’s about growing up in a provincial place and resolving to get out even as obstacles to that tug at the heart and soul. Here, the anchor that’s holding back two brothers — one an aspiring actor, the younger an aspiring writer with Ivy League dreams — is their depressed, morbidly obese and overdose-prone mother.
She’s sensitively played by Chrissy Metz of TV’s “This is Us,” cast for the first time as someone whose appearance betrays our baser instincts when we see someone that overweight. She’s got a problem.
They title “Stay Awake” comes from brothers Derek (Wyatt Oleff) and Ethan (Fin Argus). It’s what they shout whenever they’re pleading with their mother, singing songs from movies and begging her to ID “Everybody’s Talking” from “Midnight Cowboy” or “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Look at me! Look at me. Stay AWAKE!”
One brother or the other has found Mom Michelle unreponsive. Again. The other brother’s been fetched to help get her in the car for yet another urgent dash to the small Virginia town’s emergency room, where everybody knows their name.
Older brother Derek is the one inclined to be supportive and cut the woman some slack. He works at the bowling alley, and having graduated a couple of years before, goes out on auditions with dreams of landing a big TV commercial — Virginia Tourism in particular. Derek is still dating high school “girls” in his 20s, and that’s not good. Melanie (Cree Cicchino) sees through him.
“Why do you always gave to put a ‘bow’ on everything?”
Ethan is the brother willing to put his foot down, making “rehab” and “psychiatric commitment” threats. He is the more “parentified child,” the audience’s “tough love” surrogate.
“We’re DONE. We’re not searching for you ANY more!”
Ethan’s ready to go to college, has good news from two schools, one of which he never told his “We’ll go to (Virginia) Tech together!” girlfried at the Jolly Cow Drive-in (Quinn McColgan) about.
But here’s another and then another triggering moment for his mother, another trick she’s played to get her couldn’t-care-less doctor to refill her prescription, another controlled-panic race to the hospital.
She isn’t able to control herself enough to stop torturing her sons.
As you’d expect, “Stay Awake” is a soft-spoken film. The rare outburst can be jarring, or comical, as in the tirade Ms. Va. Tech Hokie launches into when she discovers Ethan’s “secret.”
First-time feature writer-director Jamie Sisley, expanding on a earlier short film, keeps the tone quiet and kind of exhausted. Everybody here is spent. And the narrative is given just enough problem-solving to keep the story honest about the limited and limiting choices everyone in this family faces thanks to Mom’s illness.
Yes, it’s sentimental and leans towards the soft side, even in its edgier moments. But “Stay Awake” is more about a situation and a story that will resonate with a lot of people than it is a New Direction in Indie Film.
That’s what intimate cinema like this has always done best — put believable characters in “lived in” places, in real world situations where the stakes are small but terminal and pretty damned important to those affected.
Whatever happens to this family, you can bet your last dollar that one and all who survive will damned sure “come of age.”
Rating: unrated, adult addiction subject matter, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, Cree Cichino, Quinn McColgan and Chrissy Metz
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jamie Sisley. A Mar Vista release.
Running time: 1:33