11 Not So Great Movies That Got Me Through My First Year of Sobriety

By Sean Paul Mahoney 04/08/16

My first year sober was a mess. But these movies helped me, moved me, and stayed with me.

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Movies were always my first drug. As a kid growing up in an alcoholic home, film was my highway to a more fabulous existence. The upside of this drug? Unlike alcohol, movies never made me punch anyone, send hateful text messages or generally act like the worst person on the planet. The downside? The high lasted only a few hours and the harsh real world never completely vanished.

After feeling suicidal for nearly nine months, I started to think I might be able to make it and maybe one day even make something beautiful too. 

In January 2009, I decided to stop drinking and finally face reality. Despite getting sober in Los Angeles, my challenging first year of recovery wasn’t chock-full of the uplifting stuff that Hollywood is famous for, and none of my problems were solved in 90 minutes. So thank heavens for the movies. Here’s a handful from 2009 that pulled me through, one frame at a time. 

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Rachel Getting Married: Sobriety plus actor friends in Los Angeles equals Academy screeners! One of the first I got my hands on was this beautiful film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway. Kym (Hathaway) returns home for her sister’s wedding after a decade in and out of rehab. At less than a month sober, watching Kym’s disaster of a life and how she selfishly tries to turn someone else’s big day into “all about her” punched me in the gut. It was the first glimpse I had that maybe this recovery gig wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.

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Confessions of a Shopaholic: With a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes and the tagline, “All she ever wanted was a little credit,” this movie has been rightfully left to rot in the romantic comedy compost bin. Yet I will never forget it. With a little more than a month sober, the 104 minutes with Isla Fisher provided a much needed break from my daily ritual of crying while riding the bus. Based on a book your mom probably read, the film glosses over shopping addiction with a thumping soundtrack and a groan-worthy plot. Translation: it was precisely what I needed at the time. 

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Watchmen: Listen, if you wanted a detailed, scene-by-scene synopsis of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, I would utterly fail. The fog left behind after 20 years of drinking and drugging was a long way off from clearing. With less than 60 days clean, I watched the film on a massive screen at Universal and literally the only thing I clearly recall is the six-foot-tall blue penis of Dr. Manhattan. I do sort of remember nibbling on popcorn thinking, “Ooh! This is fun!” while wondering how an acting powerhouse like Carla Gugino wound up here. Other than that, I got nothing. 

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Milk: As previously mentioned, crying was my pastime in early recovery. A sober friend said I was “defrosting,” and a biopic about the life of Harvey Milk didn’t exactly help kick the habit. Sean Penn gives a knockout performance in a film that manages to be exhilarating and emotionally effective. Despite our emotional connection to Good Will Hunting, Milk is hands down director Gus Van Sant’s best movie. Milk was an LGBT trailblazer who persevered over impossible odds and met a tragic end when he was murdered in 1978. In other words, cue the waterworks and pass the tissues.

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Star Trek: J.J. Abrams' reboot of the legendary franchise surprised me with its warmth and intelligence. Sure, it’s a big Hollywood blockbuster with lots of special effects and a cast so good looking it's almost exhausting. But unlike some of the garbage I sat through earlier in the year, Star Trek had meaty, substantial storytelling that I could sink my teeth into. Plus, I was inching closer to the longest time I’d ever gone without drinking or drugs. The final frontier, indeed. 

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Summer Stock: Old movies have always given me a vacation to a simpler, more glamorous time. In August of 2009, I really needed one. At seven months of sobriety, I was dealt a difficult health diagnosis. The kind of thing that if I drank over it, I was sure people would understand. Miraculously, I didn’t. This 1950 classic, wherein Judy Garland plays a hardworking farmer who can also sing and dance, was a successful distraction. Judy slays a version of “Get Happy,” which served as not only a personal mantra but a promise. Leave it to another addict to know just what to say. 

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The September Issue: This documentary chronicles the production of Vogue’s biggest issue of the year, filled with thousands of models, photographs and ads. While it could be perceived as a celebration of the ultimate in superficial fluff, the film split my head open. To watch creative people band together and make something beautiful, even if it was quickly forgotten, sparked my own revelations. After feeling suicidal for nearly nine months, I started to think I might be able to make it and maybe one day even make something beautiful too. 

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Precious: And again with the crying. Had it been earlier in my recovery, I might not have been able to stomach Lee Daniels’ brutal adaptation of the novel Push. The film pulls zero punches and isn’t afraid to show life at its most dismal. Thankfully, I’d been living for some time looking at my own character defects, so the movie’s unflinching honesty didn’t scare me off. Due in part to the storytelling and the performances, the film packed an emotional wallop. Tears streamed down my face several times during that matinee, but this time I was crying because I was moved, not because I felt hopeless. 

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Fantastic Mr. Fox: A real sense of wonder had been hard to come by in those first 10 months of sobriety. Therefore, when I got invited to see Wes Anderson’s retelling of the Roald Dahl classic, I jumped at the chance. You would probably get an enthusiastic chorus of “uh-huhs” if you called Fantastic Mr. Fox a pretentious, hipster version of a kid’s movie, yet it’s impossible to argue with the film’s inventiveness and heart. Like The September Issue, the movie sent a shock of inspiration and excitement down my spine. 

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The Blind Side: Thanksgiving, my parents and Sandra Bullock. What could go wrong? Turns out, nothing! Thanksgiving with my folks was lovely and without conflict. Therefore, it was fitting that we took in this harmless family football film. The story, which could also be titled Aren’t Rich White People The Best? hits all the right heart-tugging notes. High on warm fuzzies, low on great writing, The Blind Side was less about the story for me and more about a new chapter where I started showing up for people I love, even if it was just for turkey and mediocre Sandra Bullock movies. 

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Avatar: My 10-year-old nephew and I joyfully lapped up every minute of James Cameron’s impressive sci-fi epic. This kid and his sisters were my mini-therapists that year, so it was fitting that we ended 2009 at the movies together. The film’s opening lines state, “When I was lying in the VA hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But sooner or later, you always have to wake up.“ Thankfully, I had started to wake up and reality didn’t look so bad after all. 

Sean Paul Mahoney is a blogger, playwright and humorist living in Denver. His podcast about movies and drinking, Sloshed Cinema, debuted this winter on The Since Right Now Network.

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