Trigger Warning: films and documentaries about addiction and can be hard to process as they shed light on the harsh realities and events that often take place due to ongoing drug abuse. However, most documentaries are created to further the cause of bringing a voice to the thousands of stories that exist because of growing drug epidemics currently sweeping the nation. What’s worse, the stigmas that surround substance abuse often prevent thousands of American’s from seeking the recovery treatment they need and deserve. Rather than ignoring the growing numbers of overdose deaths, documentaries about drug addiction often empower those on a road to recovery and promote wellness, as well as hope. The outlook for recovery is bright and taking the first step is often the most challenging aspect.
For viewers, films about drug and alcohol addiction can effectively change the narrative on everyday injustices, society’s view and treatment of substance abuse, the criminal justice system, and overall stigmas. Below we’re focusing on various documentaries that can help provide a different viewpoint on addiction, recovery, and the emotional narrative of families and individuals that persevere in some of the most grueling circumstances.
Here are eight amazing films and documentaries about addiction and recovery.
Documentaries About Drug Addiction
An Oscar-nominated short film follows the lives of three women — a fire chief, a judge, and a street missionary. The focus is their representation of the front line of the heroin epidemic plaguing Huntington, West Virginia. The town, with a population of a little over 95,000 residents, is battling through an opioid epidemic at alarming levels. Ten percent of the total population is addicted to schedule IV drugs. This documentary about addiction takes an insightful look at what it means to see, firsthand, the realities of heroin addiction.
Heroin(e) puts a magnifying glass on just one U.S. city currently ravished by opioid addiction. Discover a different representation of how people in their own communities and working to change the outcome of the disease of addiction and working together to end stigmas while promoting recovery.
2. The House I Live In
The House I Live In is a great documentary film reviewing the drug problem in America. Its viewpoint is broader and encompasses the issues as it concerns the War on Drugs. The film shows how millions of individuals are incarcerated each year due to the disease of addiction. The addiction documentary also explores the U.S. federal government’s criminal approach to what experts say is actually a major health and wellness concern. It also illustrates how the country is approaching treatment and rehabilitation and, in many ways, falling short.
The House I Live In is educational, but it’s also entertaining. This particular documentary raises the question of whether or not the War on Drugs is a viable place to spend resources, or if it’s lacking in addressing the underlying causes of ongoing addiction. Decide for yourself and add it to your queue.
3. The Anonymous People
This feature documentary film is about the more than 23 million people in the United States who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
The Anonymous People is not just a movie, it’s a movement. The film’s website states: “We are moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – all bringing the power and proof of recovery to our communities. Together we will change public perception, and ultimately the public response to the addiction crisis…FOREVER. Will you join us?”
This engaging documentary was created to destigmatize addiction and show the world who we are. As a result of the film, there is a full-fledged effort to gather Americans together to change drug laws that incarcerate people battling with addiction.
This movie puts a face to the millions of families and individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It tells the true stories of ordinary people seeking to overcome extraordinary challenges. If you’re in recovery or wanting to find inspiration for seeking help, this film can bring a sense of hope and possibility.
4. My Name is Bill W. – Docudrama
Ever wonder about the history of one of the most infamous treatment modalities? Millions of people around the globe are now familiar with a 12-step plan. It is often referenced in blockbuster hits, over social media, with famous celebrities, and in our own communities. My Name is Bill W. discloses the origin of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization formed in 1935 in the small town of Akron, Ohio. This is the historical account of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and his journey to sobriety. It’s a beautiful story and one worthy of a mention, especially if you’re looking into alcohol recovery. The movie shows Bill W.’s struggle with alcoholism and tells how he started what is now a worldwide fellowship in his living room.
Making its debut in 1989, the film stars James Woods as Bill W. and James Garner as Dr. Silkworth, who played a large part in helping Bill W. start A.A. The movie also stars Jo Beth Williams as Bill W.’s wife, Lois W., who is credited with starting Al-Anon.
This docu-series was launched in March 2005, airing on A&E. It was received well by the public and, today, has over 300 episodes spanning 21 seasons. The focal point of the documentary is exploring two participants who are suffering from substance dependency or severe addiction. Over a period of time, the individuals are followed, leading up to what is widely known in recovery as an intervention. The act involves interceding in the life or behavior of a person, in the hopes of changing their behavior or the outcomes of the situation. In this particular case, family members, friends, and co-workers intervene on behalf of their loved one who is lost in the disease of addiction.
Each episode explores different substances and different outcomes for all involved. As many are aware, addiction impacts everyone differently and no two stories are the same. This non-discriminatory documentary about addiction is a realistic depiction of what happens to an individual when they abuse drugs and alcohol. In addition, it also considers relatives, friends, and close loved ones that are greatly impacted by ongoing drug abuse and alcohol use disorder. The show also works with substance abuse treatment centers across the country and offers resources for each individual documented throughout the show. The goal of every episode is to uncover the unique situations that can cause or lead individuals to self-medicate. A licensed therapist helps loved ones facilitate intervention and find the necessary support for overcoming the disease.
6. Prescription Thugs
Originally premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015, this documentary film uncovers the world of the pharmaceutical industry. Prescription abuse has become so widespread in America that many states are raising the alarm and dubbing it an ongoing crisis. More and more citizens are dying each year due to prescription pill overdose and prescription addiction. It’s a sad reality that is impacting families of all economic, ethnic, and social groups. Startling truths about America’s richest pharmaceutical companies are revealed and the scope of information may leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Does Big Pharma impact prescription drug abuse in this country? If so, how are their marketing practices changing to reach wider and farther? How can recovery programs combat these growing issues? Discover more information on these subjects during various documentaries about addiction as it refers to prescription medication.
7. Basketball Diaries
Starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his earliest films, Basketball Diaries (1995) is the harrowing tale of teenager Jim Carroll’s addiction to heroin. The drama is based on Carroll’s autobiographical book of the same name.
Also starring Mark Wahlberg and Juliette Lewis, Basketball Diaries is set in New York City in the 1970s. It’s the story of Carroll’s experimentation with drugs and his subsequent spiral to rock bottom. Basketball Diaries is a dark and gritty flick and probably one of the greatest (and most real) movies ever made about heroin addiction. Carroll’s addiction takes him to some low places – including homelessness and prostitution. This movie should be shown to every single high school student as an anti-drug message.
Sober from the 1970s until his death in 2009, Carrol was an author, poet, and punk rocker.
8. Drugstore Cowboy
Starring Matt Dillon as Bob Hughes and Kelly Lynch as his wife Diane, Drugstore Cowboy made its debut in 1989 and has since become a cult classic. The crime drama is about a group of drug addicts who support their addiction by robbing pharmacies and hospitals of their pharmaceuticals.
Ultimately, Bob falls victim to a series of misfortunate events, as drug addicts always do. After something really, really bad happens (no spoilers here!), Bob makes the decision to get clean. He rents a small apartment and “goes straight,” as he calls it. He is happy to live a simple life after years of ripping and running like a dope fiend.
If you want to watch a really good movie about the high cost of low living, this flick is for you.
9. Clean and Sober
In the 1988 movie Clean and Sober, Michael Keaton plays Daryl Poynter, a drug addict and alcoholic who checks himself into rehab to escape trouble with the law. After finding a dead woman in his bed who had been partying with the night before, Poynter thinks rehab will be a safe haven. At first, he runs away from rehab convinced he doesn’t belong there, but before long, he realizes rehab is exactly where he needs to be. While in rehab, Keaton meets a tough substance abuse counselor and recovering addict played by Morgan Freeman.
The movie does a good job of depicting the process every addict and alcoholic goes through when we first get clean and sober. Although the movie is a drama, it has some comedic overtones and makes for a couple of entertaining hours of movie-watching.
10. 28 Days
While not a documentary about addiction, 28 Days, starring the lovely Sandra Bullock as Gwen Cummings, is a great movie about journeying through rehab. In the film, Cummings is ordered by the court to go to rehab after crashing a stolen limo and ruining her sister’s wedding. The dramatic comedy debuted in theaters in the year 2000. Like Clean and Sober, the movie 28 Days focuses on what it is like to get sober in rehab. The Cummings character deals with a lot of family issues in group therapy and is forced to reexamine her entire life. The film depicts the most difficult thing we deal with during the early days of recovery: emotions and, ultimately, underlying mental health issues.
If you’ve ever done a stint in rehab, you will definitely relate to this movie. If you’re thinking about going into a rehabilitation facility, this movie does a good job of showing the realities of the first 28 days.
11. Permanent Midnight
Permanent Midnight has a lot in common with Basketball Diaries. It’s a true story, it’s based on the lead character’s autobiography, and it’s about heroin addiction (which is one of the hardest addictions to kick).
Starring Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Hurly, the film focuses on Jerry Stahl (played by Stiller) and his $6,000 a week heroin habit. Stahl was a television comedy writer in the 1980s, most famous for the television show “Alf.”
Like Carroll, Stahl hits a low bottom and ultimately gets clean after he is caught shooting up with his infant daughter in the car. This is another movie that should be shown to young people to keep them from ever thinking it’s cool to use heroin.
12. When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story
The documentary, My Name is Bill W., has a different perspective and it is shared in this heart-wrenching film. The main character is played by leading Hollywood actress Winona Ryder. As a docudrama, it uncovers the epic story of devotion, recovery, and hope that spans more than 30 years and is based on the true story of Lois Wilson, wife to Alcoholics Anonymous founder, Bill Wilson. Lois’s life legacy was her co-founding of Al-Anon, a recovery resource often used by family members that are facing a loved one who has substance dependency issues.
This gritty drama depicts a different version of the endless cycle of alcohol and drug addiction. As many have said before: addiction impacts more than just one person. As the wife of someone battling with extreme alcohol use disorder, Lois finds herself feeling isolated and angry. She explores the power in unity and uses it as a tool to help other families suffering the same mental health issues.
13. Rachel Getting Married
Need more documentaries about addiction? This is not a documentary, unfortunately. However, it is a very realistic perspective of how the disease of addiction can cause family rifts and exacerbate the issues as they surround substance misuse. The film stars actress Anne Hathaway who plays Kym, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who is temporarily discharged from rehab to attend her older sister’s wedding.
The family dynamic depicted in this film, while painted with a broad stroke, is a sad reality that many addicts face during their recovery process. Family and friends often harbor a great deal of resentment, misunderstand, and may even fuel continued substance use. Many can feel at a loss as to how to approach their loved one about their ongoing mental health and substance abuse issues. For this reason, it’s important that licensed therapists are considered as a viable option for treatment and not only for someone with an addiction but also for those that have been exposed to drug abuse. It often becomes a question about support versus enabling.
A Word to the Wise When Watching Movies About Addiction and Recovery
Keep in mind that most movies about addiction show a lot of drug or alcohol use. This can be a trigger for many people. Seeing heroin, pot-smoking, alcohol bottles, or the sniffing of cocaine can cause an unexpected reaction in the brain. Even though you might be fine when the movie starts, you may find yourself experiencing cravings as the movie progresses.
All of these movies show the dark side of addiction. Not one of them glamorizes drug or alcohol use. However, no matter how tragic, dark, or depraved drug or alcohol addiction might be depicted, shedding light on the realities of substance abuse is helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the drug epidemics that are plaguing nearly every major city and rural town across the country. If you are new to recovery or feeling shaky in your sobriety, it’s definitely a good idea to watch these movies with other recovering people.
AspenRidge Addiction Support
AspenRidge is happy to help members who are receiving treatment as well as their family and friends. As described above, the community is important to recovery and it is AspenRidge’s dedication to aiding all members of recovery from the initial contact to setting up proper community support. The staff is highly trained in assessment and able to provide further information on safely obtaining sobriety prior to admittance into rehabilitative programs.
Contact AspenRidge Recovery Centers at 855-288-5588 to speak to staff about various programs or to verify different insurance plans. Gaining knowledge prior to taking the steps towards recovery is crucial and AspenRidge is determined to help in the recovery process and connect those with the resources needed to prevail through addiction.