“Cherry”: Hard to Stomach, But a Necessary Film
a narrative of the many complexities faced in addiction and trauma
“Cherry” is at times almost overwhelming in its raw and real depiction…
This film adaptation was based on the debut novel Cherry, written by Nico Walker. The novel is an autofiction detailing the life of a military veteran who struggled with drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
(This review will be focused on the film instead of the novel.)
The film is directed by the Russo Brothers, the men behind crowd favourite Marvel Cinematic Universe films such as the Avengers franchise. The screenplay of Cherry was written by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg.
Tom Holland, most known for his role as Spider-Man, plays the role of the unnamed narrator/military veteran (for the sake of flow, I will be referring to this character’s name as “Cherry”, non-italicised). Ciara Bravo, famously known for her reprised role in Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush, plays the role of Cherry’s partner — Emily.
The film has received a wide range of reviews due to different factors taken into account by each individual. The score given by critics differed from one another, just as how it differed from ratings given by the audience. Some compared the film’s standing in comparison to other war veteran movies, while others focused on the stunning portrayal by the actors involved. I was extremely impressed by Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo’s dedication towards understanding (speaking to and visiting those in rehabilitation centres) and committing to their different roles as their character progresses through the film (physical transformations, having difficult days on set due to the places they had to go to mentally/emotionally).
This film opens up important discussions, and there were several themes that stood out in this film adaptation:
A war odyssey
Cherry ends up enlisting in the US army. This was set during the Iraq war. Cherry details his life as a soldier, touching on experiences that military veterans share (e.g. comradery/brotherhood, traumatic experiences, anxiety). After Cherry returns from his service, he starts self-medicating with opiates as a way to cope with his PTSD.
In interviews with the cast of Cherry, this film refers to the opioid epidemic, as well as the relationship between military life and substance abuse. To explain briefly, opioid addiction is “characterised by a powerful, compulsive urge to use opioid drugs, even when they are no longer required medically.” Opioids are a class of drugs that are used to reduce pain. Keeping in mind that several synthetic opioids can be prescribed by medical professionals, the relationship between finding treatment options for PTSD and opioid usage has become an issue.
According to research, the opioid crisis affects the military age population and the top states for military enlistments. This crisis brings up the question of treating trauma, ways of rehabilitation, and pain management. The stress of training, deployment, returning home and other facets of military life and culture are all factors that can influence a veteran’s position in recovery.
Toxicity and codependency in relationships
To cope with his PTSD, Cherry started abusing drugs that were prescribed to decrease his PTSD symptoms. His growing addiction begins to frustrate his wife, Emily. Following that, she begins taking Cherry’s medication to deal with her own frustration of not knowing how to support him.
The pair soon became addicted. (In reference to the plot of the novel, it was mentioned that the character was with a partner who enabled his addiction.) Through their ‘dope life’ sequence in the film, we see Cherry and Emily enabling each other, showcasing signs of toxic codependency. One day, Emily overdoses. Following that incident, she was then sent to a drug rehabilitation facility. When they reunited, Cherry tries to convince Emily that he was not good for her. Emily tells him she still wants to be with him, and will continue using drugs regardless.
It is important to note that the relationship between Cherry and Emily was not — and should not — be glamorised or romanticised.
It was interesting that a critic mentioned the characters were “not likeable or lovable” as a negative review. I felt that this particular sentence was exactly why the actors succeeded in their portrayal of Cherry and Emily: they were telling the story of countless of military war veterans who end up wrestling with their own demons and are in a dire need of healing.
The process of healing is not supposed to be pretty. This was a movie that was hard to watch because of how raw it was — but it was a narrative that was necessary in addressing the many complexities faced in addiction and trauma.
The film is split into different sections that explores Cherry’s identity as a student, a lover, a soldier, a junkie, and a thief. Though we were introduced to the innocence of their love, the actors did an amazing job in portraying the gradual deterioration and breakdown of their characters into unrecognisable versions of themselves due to falling to their circumstances.
Healing from trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Cherry sheds further light on understanding PTSD.
By definition, PTSD refers to a “disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.” Though it is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation, people who have PTSD may continue to feel stressed or frightened long after the event in question has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares. Ranges of emotions can include sadness, fear, anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from those around them.
In Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score, the author shares on his experience treating war veterans. He shares that though they were haunted by their experiences, it was a struggle for them to depart from talking about and/or attaching value to their past.
Experiencing trauma, in layman terms, feels like someone being put on pause while everyone else continues running ahead. Trauma survivors are guided towards learning how they can live in the present, rather than their past.
Dealing with addiction
The novel explores more about Cherry’s drug addiction, while the film focuses instead on the effects of PTSD.
In a review by the San Francisco Chronicle, the critic comments: “He (Cherry) goes from a thoughtful guy who can’t think his way out of a trap to a guy who can barely think at all.” This description aptly describes the breakdown of Cherry’s character as he falls to his addiction. With continued usage, a person’s ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired.
It is important to remember that addiction (drugs or otherwise) is a complex issue — just as the process of treatment and rehabilitation is. Substance abuse and addiction is commonly connected to co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Our mental health journeys
According to the film adaptation, Cherry and Emily fell in love during college. However, Emily then decided to leave and study in Montreal. To escape his heartbreak, Cherry enlists in the army. In the film, he cites a lack of purpose as his motivation in applying. Just as he was about to leave for his service, Emily confesses her love for him. They decided to get married before he left.
Cherry opens up a discussion of our relationship with our own mental health, as well as the mental health of our loved ones. How can we open up to one another? How do we become a supportive partner/person as our loved ones seek for professional help? Understanding the importance of drawing our boundaries, putting our oxygen masks on, and knowing when to seek for help.
In conclusion, this film explores into serious and deeper themes. In an Instagram live with Chris Pratt (31/12/20), Tom Holland mentioned that his mom found it difficult to watch the film as it was hard to see the many things that his character was going through. I would give a big *trigger warning* before watching this film — the cast members really threw themselves into dark places to bring this story to life. Cherry was hard to watch, but it succeeds in its message of urgency for greater intervention in mental health and addiction treatment.
Recommended interviews to learn more about the film:
Cherry Cast — Live Q&A Session with RDJ
‘Cherry’ Interviews With Tom Holland, The Russo Brothers And More