Updated on April 2, 2019
New Film Addresses the Loneliness of Addiction
Netflix has produced a new film that stars James Franco and Abbi Jacobson, and that takes an intimate look at a family dealing with the impact of addiction.
As reviewed by the Daily Dot, 6 Balloons, which debuted at SXSW on Monday, tells the story of Katie (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) a woman who’s trying to plan a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend. But as the day goes on she discovers that her brother Seth (Dave Franco), a heroin addict, has begun using again. She begins to search unsuccessfully for a detox center … Meanwhile, he is taking care of his two-year-old daughter Ella and going through withdrawal right in front of her.
How Addiction Can Be Lonely
Writer and director Marja-Lewis Ryan explained that when dealing with addiction, “the loneliness inside those dark moments is almost more crippling … not being able to talk about the things; not knowing where to talk. If this isn’t your story, then maybe you can gain a little empathy for people who are experiencing this. And if it is your story, hopefully, you can feel a little less lonely.”
The film expertly shows how an upper-class life and even parenthood can exist alongside what many consider to be the depths of substance abuse: IV drug use. Perhaps if the general public is made more aware that this is the reality for so many people, it will be treated with the attention it deserves.
Casting in the movie was very well-done. Dave Franco plays the charming, all too likable boy next door, selling the reality that this can happen to anyone. “That was a really important quality,” said Director Marja-Lewis Ryan, “because I wanted the audience to understand why Katie was helping him and enabling him, and Seth’s charm made that easier to buy.” 6 Balloons, named for the balloons heroin is sold in, shows the reality of how a father, loving brother, and a witty member of your family can hide and struggle with heroin addiction.
The Thorny Issue of Enabling
The film also explores the extremely complex, tenuous issue of “enabling” a drug user. When someone you love is in pain, or even in danger because of withdrawals, it can be extremely hard to turn your back on them. Katie, in the first parts of the film, does the right thing seeking treatment for her brother. In an all too real portrayal, the detox centers were unable to admit him and he was left to his own devices.
A Film Daily critique of 6 Balloons laid out what the film “gets right” about enabling, based on interviews with addiction professionals who work with families affected by addiction:
- that enabling is “love gone too far” – the showering of unconditional love in dysfunctional ways, out of fear that you’ll lose the person
- that enabling can comprise a cycle of wanting to be needed, rescuing the addict and then feeling resentful
- that enabling can involve “craving control but losing it” – Katie, the critique goes, relishes being a dominant caretaker but at times goes along with her brother’s unhealthy behaviors, acting almost as an accomplice in his drug use
- that overcoming a pattern of enabling requires courage— to be introspective about what behaviors need changing, to step out of the old enabling role of “caretaker” and begin acting in one’s own best interests, and to have an honest conversation with the addict you love (letting them know what you need in the way of boundaries and what you no longer will put up with)
How to Know if You’re Enabling – Signs of Codependency
The issue of enabling loomed large throughout the film— much in the same way that it looms large in the lives of the thousands of families affected by heroin and other addictions in this country. Codependency is a frequent theme in recovery circles, and one of the first things that families in recovery learn is how to know if they’re enabling their loved one’s drug use. Families in recovery soon gain familiarity with the following signs of codependency (or enabling of an addict):
- Providing the addict with money to support their habit
- Minimizing the severity of the problem or rationalizing the addict’s behavior
- Offering emotional support to the addict
- Lying for the addict, in order to protect them from the bad consequences of their drug abuse
- Making excuses for the addict’s behavior
- Providing the addict with shelter
Anyone who loves someone with an addiction, and who is indulging in any of the above behaviors, should take a step backward and reassess whether they are really helping or hurting their loved one. Codependency can be hard to break free from, but there’s help. Often, an intervention can be the first step towards recovery— both for your loved one and for you, in the journey to freedom from codependency. Discover how.
What Reviews Say About the Film
In addition to shining a light on heroin addiction and the related family dynamics of enabling and codependency, 6 Balloons seemed to do well among viewers. The film is currently at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 54% of audiences “liked it.” Reviews are consistent in their praise of the actors’ work and their handling of the subject matter. Criticism of the film hinges on its brief, almost reductionist handling of the subject matter: the long often protracted journey that families affected by addiction must take seems to get but a fleeting glance. (It is true the film only clocks in at 70 minutes and can feel more like a brief character sketch portrayal rather than a full-fledged movie.)
Trigger Warning for Recovering Addicts and Family Members
Would we suggest watching 6 Balloons? We would give a qualified “yes.” It’s an objectively good movie, one that addresses an important and timely subject matter. Its ideal audience are those who aren’t familiar with the opioid epidemic and how it can be hiding in plain sight. The movie may shock these viewers into the realization that heroin abuse doesn’t just manifest itself as a homeless person under a highway overpass. Heroin addiction can be in your family— and may even show up at the next family birthday party.
We would not be so quick to recommend this movie to those in early recovery or those who have loved ones in recovery, however. The images, dialogue and issues presented could easily trigger some strong reactions. While the movie does not in any way glorify drug use, its depiction of it may trigger memories and painful or difficult emotions—even cravings—that would be better addressed in a therapeutic environment.
Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction, lying to yourself and others? Don’t wait any longer to ask for help. In today’s environment, you never know when your next dose will be your last.
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