The release of Cherry brings us to a critical mass enough to receive recognition as a trend. We’re now at three Millennial-Gen Z straddling actors who have played drug addicts shortly after their breakout teen or young adult roles (Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy, Lucas Hedges in Ben Is Back, and now Tom Holland in the aforementioned title). With the Cherry bomb, as it were, bringing this type of performance to a nadir, it’s a great opportunity to re-evaluate who’s really being served by this collision of narratives around addiction.
This trio is far from the first group to play with these tropes; drug and substance abuse narratives permeate cinema history from Reefer Madness to The Panic in Needle Park. But the more recent tradition under which these performances fall is just over a quarter-century old: 1995’s The Basketball Diaries. Star Leonardo DiCaprio, eager to establish himself as something more than the latest Tiger Beat sensation, threw himself into the role of high-schooler Jim Carroll as he seeks solace from the pains of adolescence in heroin. As DiCaprio bombastically convulses and writhes through the journey of a junkie, the movie signals an abrupt departure from the cherubic image he cultivated as a young actor. Jim’s crash course from the school of hard knocks served a meta-purpose for DiCaprio as well – this was a clean-cut child star no more.
These on-screen addicts from DiCaprio to Heath Ledger in Candy and Chris Evans in Puncture prioritize the physicality of the performance. The actors let the audience in on the combustibility of their characters through tics like jitteriness, droopiness, and bodily contortion. Recently, the already waifish Chalamet further dropped weight for Beautiful Boy, and Holland buzzed off his luscious locks for Cherry. These narratives center on the symptoms of drug addiction and allow young actors to flex a different kind of muscle. Prized for their boyish looks and raw emotive potential in their younger years, playing an addict gives them a chance to demonstrate an athletic-like mastery over their bodies while simultaneously obliterating them before our eyes.
Parents or other familial figures loom large in these movies, mostly in a reactive role as they gape aghast at the wreckage left behind. They frequently appeal to a bygone childlike version of the addicts, setting up these reimagined figures as their foils. Their disbelief mirrors that of the audience and confirms the drastic nature of the departure we’re witnessing, further moving addiction into the realm of metaphor and metatext. It’s akin to a viral illness that infects young, impressionable men who are ill-equipped to handle the adult world. Because the cinematic configuration of the disease can be easily contracted, these films grant a false comfort that it is also curable with the right regimen of tough love, tragedy, and – of course – mature self-responsibility. (For obvious reasons, this subgenre is aggressively white.)
This focus on the acute manifestations of addiction misrepresents the nature of the condition at the expense of the chronic dimension. (Credit where due: Ben Is Back sidesteps this a bit by unfurling a narrative during relapse rather than the initial onset.) The volatility and irascibility caused by drug dependency only make up a fraction of the battle these people must face. Addiction will always be with them, waging internal war on their minds and priorities, even if the externally visible signs subside with time and treatment. These films stumble as star texts because there’s a dissonance between the function of addiction for character and performer. The enduring pain of addiction is imprisoning for the character yet supposedly freeing for the actor as they shed their celluloid baby fat.
Holland, Hedges and Chalamet may enter these films about addiction with the best of intentions. But the undeniable effect of their presence on-screen is to lend a heavy metatextual element that overshadows the actual narrative. Not unlike actors playing disabled roles, they draw attention toward themselves and away from the condition itself. From a technical perspective, these are accomplished turns. (Holland could have stood to dial back the fidgety, manic energy in Cherry, but his dexterity as a physical performer is undeniable.) On a textual level, however, they overwhelm any sophistication of the story with the sheer sensationalism of their involvement. The star wattage is blinding.
It’s clear we are in the throes of a generational changing of the guard as Gen Z grows into being culture’s resident young people. Millennials dealt with struggles of scarcity in their formative years as narcissistic boomers refused to be dislodged from their ensconced societal perches, resulting in trials like prolonged adolescence and delayed adulthood. Generation Z, on the other hand, grapples with problems of abundance as the omnipresence of screens and connectivity smothered them with unlimited access and information. If Millennials were too slow to grow up, Gen Z cannot help but grow up too fast, be it in these addiction movies or TV shows like Euphoria or 13 Reasons Why.
But Hollywood should get a little more imagination when it comes to catapulting their young talent into the next generation of leading men: stop presenting addiction as a jungle gym for them to play on and demonstrate their adult bona fides. This condition should not become a lazy shorthand for coming-of-age across multiple fronts or a launchpad out of the teen scene. By reducing addiction to the mannerisms without sufficiently exploring the mentality, these movies and actors can only understand and validate the experience through the prism of ego and trauma.