After a long history of one-dimensional, moralistic, and inaccurate depictions of addiction on screen, two recent films, Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back, seem determined to flesh out flawed and incomplete portraits of the disease that afflicts one in seven Americans.

While Beautiful Boy shows a father’s (Steve Carell) relentless determination to rescue his son (Timothée Chalamet) from the ravages of crystal meth, Ben Is Back follows a mother’s attempt (Julia Roberts) to keep her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) sober over a harrowing 24-hour period after he unexpectedly returns home on Christmas Eve. When their home is vandalized and their dog, Ponce, is stolen by an addict and former dealer believed to have it out for Ben, his mother, Holly, goes with him on a dangerous journey through his checkered past to retrieve the abducted pet before Christmas morning. Fundamentally, the movie grapples with the struggle for redemption after years of deceit spurred by addiction, and the life-affirming power of forgiveness and hope.

Bevan Thomas, Ben Is Back’s associate producer, says the movie mirrors the struggles that she and her sister have had with addiction, and breaks down three lessons she hopes audiences will glean from her latest project:

Watch our interview with Bevan Thomas below:

Addicts don’t feel their value, and drugs are a form of anesthetization

During an exchange between Ben and Holly at a roadside diner on their trek to find Ponce, Ben crushingly reveals what he felt while under the influence: “Safe. Loved. Alive. Whole. Something that nobody, not even you, could ever make me feel,” he tells his mom. In another pivotal scene, he begs her to go home: “Mom, you don’t know what you’re doing… I’m not worth it. If you really knew me, you’d be done with me,” he says, pushing her away. Thomas, who suffered from several manifestations of addiction, including eating disorders, alcohol, and drug abuse, says she cries every time she watches that scene: “It’s a powerful moment that illustrates that so much of addiction is not about behavior or the substance,” she says, “It’s the function the addiction is serving in your life. It’s so often self-medicating your anxiety and depression. It’s a tool for coping.” That point hammers home the fact that addiction is not an irresponsible, hedonistic diversion born of a moral failing, as some believe. Rather, it’s a destructive form of self-anesthetization that warrants our sympathy and support.

Telling stories of addiction is healing and engenders empathy

Thomas explains why it’s so critical for stories about addiction to be told via every possible medium. “For me,” she stresses, “the film is a way not only to build the necessary awareness that creates change through living a vicarious experience as an audience member, but it creates empathy.” People relate to and are moved by the characters, she says, which universalizes the characters’ experiences. The more people come forward about their struggles with addiction, the less stigma — “secrecy keeps shame alive,” she says — and more awareness there will be about the disease. “In coming out of the shadows and telling our stories,” she says, “people can relate and see themselves. It creates an opening for people to use their voice and speak up… and seek help.” Success stories like hers offer those in the early stages of recovery inspiration too: “Otherwise, we don’t see examples of people who have been through it and are on the other side.”

We can’t do it alone

When Ben tries to rebuff Holly’s attempts to help him, she remains stalwart and steady: “I will not leave you,” she says. When he rattles off a list of reasons he’s unworthy of her love and support, she refuses to back down, telling him his ploy to get rid of her “is not working.” That’s critical, says Thomas, who notes that years of recovery “rewired my brain” to such a degree she doesn’t even recognize her former self: “I could not have done it alone, isolated, in a vacuum,” she says, revealing that she’s now found her sanity and stability and “moved into a new actualized version of myself.”

As painful as her journey has been, in many ways Thomas is grateful for where addiction has led her today — a life in which she has the “tools to get through difficulties” and the realization that we are always evolving and changing.

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  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.