Perceptions about drugs, drug use, addiction, and treatment have changed throughout the years.
Drug addiction has been a common theme in movies over the years. Some movies glorify drug use, while others are brutally honest on its hazards. Others follow the journey from drug use to addiction through to recovery.
Nearly 18.5 million people battled illegal drug addiction in 2020, making it extremely common. It’s no wonder that addiction is a popular movie theme.
A drama released in 2012 directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and Nadine Velazquez, Flight follows a commercial airline pilot whose plane was malfunctioning. While he almost saves it, the airplane crashes. Initially, he appears to be a hero, but during the investigation, a hospital blood test reveals that he has an alcohol and drug problem.
Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is addicted to alcohol and also has a problem with cocaine use. The movie details how he can appear functional, but his actions eventually catch up with him.
Flight can be streamed here via Netflix.
This 1991 film directed by Lili Fini Zanuck and starring Jason Patric, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Sam Elliott depicts two small-town Texas narcotics cops who go undercover to tackle a major drug dealer. They fall into drug addiction after sampling the product in an attempt to maintain their cover and compromise their assignment.
This film offers an example as to how people can become addicted to drugs without being intentional long-term drug users and how it takes leaning on and helping each other to overcome addiction.
Rush can be streamed here on Amazon.
A 1989 film directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and James Le Gros, Drugstore Cowboy is based on autobiographical novel by James Fogle. It tells the story about a group of heroin users who rob pharmacies to support their drug use.
The leader of the group, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), shows how addiction drives feelings, thoughts, and actions. A fatal overdose shakes things up and Bob perseveres to overcome his addiction.
Drugstore Cowboy can be streamed here on Tubi.
Based on memoirs between father and son David and Nicolas Sheff, this film is directed by Felix van Groeningen and stars Steve Carell as David Sheff and Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff.
Beautiful Boy, released in 2018, honestly shows how addiction impacts family and friends, as the father tries to understand his son and his crystal meth addiction and seeks to help him. This heartbreaking story accurately portrays the struggles of drug addiction and its reach.
Beautiful Boy can be streamed here on Amazon Prime Video.
Director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, released in 1996 and starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, and Jonny Lee Miller depicts the violence and heartbreak of heroin addiction in Edinburg, Scotland. Renton (Ewan McGregor) is deeply embroiled in the drug scene and struggles with heroin use and addiction.
The film details his attempts to break free as well as how difficult this can be to do and how friends can draw you back in. Trainspotting uses artistry and dark humor to showcase the brutality and destruction of heroin addiction.
Trainspotting can be streamed here on Amazon Prime Video.
A made-for-TV movie released on HBO in 1998 and directed by Michael Christofer, Gia depicts the true-life story of Gia Carangi, a supermodel in the 1970s played by Angelina Jolie. The movie showcases Gia’s cocaine addiction and drug-fueled lifestyle.
The tragedy also portrays how Gia works to overcome her drug addiction by switching from cocaine to methadone, to which she also becomes addicted. Gia eventually dies from a side effect of intravenous drug use. She contracts HIV, which develops into AIDs.
Gia can be streamed here on HBO and HBO Max.
Based on Jerry Stahl’s autobiography, released in 1999, and directed by David Veloz, Ben Stiller plays the protagonist who struggles with drug addiction on his rise to success as a comedy writer. Seeming to have it all on the outside, Stahl’s life quickly spirals out of control. Stahl initially abuses prescription drugs and then moves to cocaine and heroin use.
Permanent Midnight depicts the progression from prescription drug to illicit drug use and the ongoing battle with drug addiction throughout the entire movie, including spending time in rehab and the difficulties of intimate relationships through addiction.
Permanent Midnight can be streamed here on Plex.
Requiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and released in 2000, Requiem for a Dream follows the lives of four Coney Island people, played by Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans, as their hopes and dreams are brought crashing down due to drug addiction. Each person’s ambitions are unrealized due to drug addiction.
The movie addresses both the physical and mental health issues that drug addiction can create. Requiem for a Dream shows the party drug scene as well as the intense pain and destruction that happen due to drug use and addiction.
Requiem for a Dream can be streamed here on Tubi.
Clean and Sober
Released in 1988 and directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, Clean and Sober follows the life of Daryl (played by Michael Keaton) and his struggles with cocaine addiction. Daryl wakes up next to a woman who has overdosed on drugs and checks himself into rehab to avoid legal issues related to embezzlement from his real estate company.
While in addiction treatment, under the direction of a person in recovery played by Morgan Freeman, Daryl realizes that he must accept that he has a cocaine addiction and needs rehab to help overcome it. Even though he did not enter rehab because he thought he needed it, Daryl comes to realize that it is actually what he needed.
Clean and Sober can be streamed here on Amazon.
The Basketball Diaries
Based on an autobiography by Jim Carroll, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, The Basketball Diaries was directed by Scott Kalvert and released in 1995. The film follows the high school basketball player Carroll down the path to drug addiction after he turns to substance abuse as a method of coping with a friend’s death.
The Basketball Diaries portrays teenage heroin addiction, the agony of withdrawal, and how drug abuse can lead to the loss of big dreams and even a prison sentence. It is in prison that Carroll begins his recovery.
The Basketball Diaries can be streamed here on Vudu.
- Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (October 2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- Flight. Netflix.
- Rush. (1991). Amazon.
- Drugstore Cowboy. (2022). Tubi, Inc.
- Beautiful Boy. Amazon.
- Trainspotting. Amazon.
- Gia. (2022) Home Box Office, Inc.
- Requiem for a Dream. (2022). Tubi, Inc.
- Clean and Sober. Amazon.
- The Basketball Diaries. (2022). Fandango.