Redemption stories are tricky, because you need to move the protagonist from a state of degradation to a state of heroism, and you have to do this in such a way that the audience wants to root for them all the way through.
Addiction stories make this twice as difficult. With most other redemption stories, you can have a protagonist who’s mostly on the straight and narrow, save for that one awful thing that you reveal in a brief, carefully constructed flashback, which minimizes the risk of losing audience sympathy.
That’s not how addiction works. If you try to pull that trick with an addiction story, it’s going to ring false, especially for those of us who have lived through addiction or watched a loved one go through it. For the record, that’s everybody.
To tell an honest addiction story, you need to let your protagonist hit rock bottom. I’m not talking about the rock bottom in Save the Cat!, I’m talking about absolute ruin and despair. You need to show him hurting the people around him, if not destroying their lives. You need to show him attacking the very people who are his last chance at salvation. You need to let the addict act like a demon, because an addiction is a demon, and all it wants is to remake the addict in its own image.
And through all that, you need to make sure the audience still loves the addict. That way they can cheer for him and rejoice in his ultimate victory. Maybe they’ll even realize that the addict is not so different from them.
It’s a tall order, but there’s a movie in theaters right now that gets it right: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, written and directed by Gus Van Sant. I love this movie so much. I feel like I’d need another 10 posts to lay out all my thoughts about it, but for now I’ll stick to one thing it does brilliantly with its structure.
Don’t Worry is based on the real life memoir of John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), a cartoonist who discovered his love for the craft after a drunken car crash left him quadriplegic. Though the movie does touch on some of the nuances of John’s disability, it mostly focuses on his recovery by showing all twelve of his steps through Alcoholics Anonymous.
The opening of the movie jumps around wildly with the chronology. Within the first fifteen minutes, we see John as an established cartoonist giving a speech about his life and career, alongside John attending his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting years earlier. We also see John before the accident, living out an addiction so severe that he starts to have a panic attack the second his buzz wears off.
It’s a little disorienting, but it works because it establishes everything we need to know about John to follow him along the journey. We learn, first off, that John becomes a jovial and inspiring figure by the end. Second, we learn that the story is focused on his addiction recovery and it’s not about to pull any punches. Third, we learn that near-total paralysis was not enough to stop John’s drinking, which demonstrates the overwhelming power of his addiction.
With all of those pieces on the chessboard, we can love and follow John instead of judging him. We understand that he doesn’t want to be an alcoholic, anymore than a cancer patient wants to have cancer. We’re willing to hang with him through the ups and downs of his journey because we know it’s all leading to a good place. That, and we trust that the storytellers are being honest with us, because the details of John’s life and recovery are almost too weird to make up.
That’s what makes the movie work. To show you what makes the movie brilliant, however, I need to throw up the spoiler tag.
*** SPOILERS FOR Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot ***
John’s biggest breakthrough in the movie isn’t when he comes to terms with being quadriplegic. It’s not when he gets a visit from his higher power and instantly stops drinking. It’s not even when he finds the man who crashed the car (Jack Black) so he can forgive him and apologize to him. That’s my favorite scene in the movie, granted, but there’s one more moment that’s even more insightful.
During a meeting towards the end of the film, John’s sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill) prompts him to “tell his story.” John insists that he’s already told the group everything he has to tell, but Donnie keeps pushing. Not wanting to disappoint Donnie, John reveals for the first time in the film what his childhood was like. Up until this point, he’s only revealed that he was abandoned as a baby and that somehow led to him being a severe alcoholic in his twenties.
Here, we finally get two brief glimpses of what happened in between, strung together with present-day John’s tearful narration. Compared to all the wild drama the film has shown us already, this memory is tame. John never got along with his adoptive family because he never got the same treatment as the other boys, so one day he got into a screaming argument with them and locked himself in his room. That’s it.
But that’s also not it. Thanks to Phoenix’s raw performance, we feel the emotional devastation attached to this memory. Everything that John has talked about before has been more dramatic, but he’s taken shelter in that drama. We’ve watched him use his mother’s act of abandonment and even his paralysis to score easy sympathy from others.
When he talks about his adoptive family, though, we discover that John’s deepest pain is the feeling that he doesn’t belong. That is the real engine behind his addiction, and when he finally admits to that feeling and starts to process it, we watch John transform into the angelic, peaceful, joyful being we met at the very beginning of the film.
That’s the ultimate irony of addiction: when you strip away the easy narratives we tell ourselves and others, it always comes back to a primal emotional wound than anyone could understand. We all feel like we don’t belong. We all feel like we’ve been wronged for no reason. We all fear, deep down, that nothing is there to catch us when we fall.
That’s why the hard work of telling an addiction story is to guide your protagonist to the point where they have that revelation, process it, and share it with others. That, by extension, allows your story to share this crucial message as well.
So get to it. Hope this helps.