Millions of people across the world suffer with addiction, whether that addiction involves alcohol, pills, sex, gambling, etc. It can feel like a dark and inescapable experience—not only for those living with it but their loved ones as well—but sometimes it can be turned around.
In fact, many people are able to make it through and start living clean, healthy lives, usually with help from rehab, therapy, and community support. And, of course, Hollywood has made all kinds of movies about the dramatic struggle that is recovery.
Here are my picks for the best movies about rehab and recovery, with characters who are on journeys of healing from addiction. (I've excluded films about addicts who don't make it to recovery.)
13. A Million Little Pieces (2018)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Odessa Young
Drama (1h 53m)
Forced stints in rehab. The painfulness of withdrawal. Inspirational therapists and ultimate redemption. None of this is new, and this sort of narrative arc has been traced numerous times in films, TV shows, documentaries, books, and articles.
Yet, even though A Million Little Pieces doesn't add anything particularly new to the conversation, it does feature solid performances and a promising, relapse-free conclusion. It's all made the more promising by the fact that it's based on a true story... somewhat.
Author James Frey received backlash for promoting his 2003 novel as a "memoir" after it was discovered that he had fabricated much of it. He later changed it to "semi-autobiography," with Random House giving out full refunds to purchasers of the book.
Still, Sam Taylor-Johnson did the best she could with the questionable material, and casting her husband was a great shout for his hot-tempered performance as a 23-year-old who's forced to attend rehab after some extreme consequences to crack cocaine.
12. Ben Is Back (2018)
Directed by Peter Hedges
Starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
Drama (1h 43m)
The only person who hurts as much as an addict is the addict's parents (assuming they're good parents). Julia Roberts stars in this stripped-down drama about a mother who takes in her addict son during the holidays, wanting to trust him but not fully able to.
Holly is overjoyed to have her son Ben (played by Lucas Hedges) back, but she's understandably cautious about his unstable behavior and history of pill abuse. After all, she does have other kids to think about.
Ben has 24 hours under her strict supervision to prove himself, during which they toil around town trying to find their missing dog from some bad people Ben used to associate with. Unsurprisingly, Ben eventually goes missing and Holly has to find him, too.
Ben Is Back doesn't have a definite ending about Ben's recovery, but from the final shot of him regaining consciousness coupled with the film's title, it's implied that he does ultimately recover in the end.
The willingness Ben displays to get better suggests he has the power to do so, brilliantly played by Lucas Hedges, son of director Peter Hedges. But the real star of the show? Julia Roberts, of course.
11. 6 Balloons (2018)
Directed by Marja-Lewis Ryan
Starring Abbi Jacobson, Dave Franco, Charlotte Carel
Drama (1h 14m)
Marja-Lewis Ryan takes a different route in exploring addiction, a trope that frequently shows up in cinema (i.e., the detective who drinks scotch or the artist who gets high for creativity).
In 6 Balloons, it's the sister who takes on the maternal role of ferrying her brother to and from rehab in pursuit of detox.
When Seb (played by Dave Franco) fails to turn up to the surprise party Katie (played by Abbi Jacobson) is throwing for her partner, she suspects a relapse is to blame.
She goes to pick up Seb, who grows increasingly sweaty, itchy, and crampy throughout the car ride. In a withdrawal scene that proves Dave Franco is more than just a comedy actor, Katie makes the high-pressure decision to buy her brother heroin.
In films, drugs are usually way too easy to procure. But in 6 Balloons, we witness the rules and dangers of picking up drugs on Skid Row.
6 Balloons is a brisk 70-minute-long affair that plays out over the course of one day with a minimal cast. It's simple but nonetheless powerful. (And surprising that Netflix didn't bother to market the film.)
10. When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)
Directed by Luis Mandoki
Starring Andy Garcia, Meg Ryan, Ellen Burstyn
Drama, Romance (2h 6m)
The title of When a Man Loves a Woman is a reference to the hit 1966 song by Percy Sledge, which most people probably sing in their heads rather than say out loud. The man is question is Michael (played by Andy Garcia) and the woman he loves is Alice (played by Meg Ryan).
Both share a happy, wholesome marriage, a picture-perfect family life, good careers, and beautiful daughters. Alice also has a severe drinking problem that causes her to lash out and fall through shower doors.
When a Man Loves a Woman isn't just about Alice's journey to rehab—where she manages to find harmony with herself and others—but it's also about how Michael deals with her spiraling and her absence as he tries to juggle single parent duties and his job as a pilot.
Michael's co-dependency on Alice means he's dissatisfied with both her reckless drunkenness and her independent recovery. Even when she's back home, Alice is still emotionally distant from him.
It's refreshing to explore the complex dynamics of marriage and addiction, even if the ending is polished into a facile "happily every after."
9. Rocketman (2019)
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Biography, Drama, Music (2h 1m)
Rocketman is a self-indulgent film about the woes and triumphs of legendary musician Elton John, who'd been trying to get a film made about himself for over two decades.
But gussied up in the flamboyant winged costume he's shown wearing to AA, what do you expect but an inflated ego?
And it's true, Elton John did have a very chaotic, impressive, and difficult life in the limelight—otherworldly even, as his song "Rocketman" expresses. Perfect source material for an all-out Hollywood movie.
Elton John's near-hedonistic lifestyle of booze, sex, and sold-out arenas began as humble piano playing in 1950s Britain. Director Dexter Fletcher continuously breaks out into song while documenting his rise to fame, toxic relationships, and suicidal alcoholism.
It's all told with the breakneck glamour of other biopics like Elvis and Bohemian Rhapsody. Amid the star-studded cast is Taron Egerton as Sir Elton John, who carries out his grand portrayal with ease.
8. My Name Is Bill W (1989)
Directed by Daniel Petrie
Starring James Woods, JoBeth Williams, James Garner
Drama (1h 40m)
Bill W.—real name Bill Wilson—was the guy who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous alongside Dr. Bob. (Both used nicknames to retain the program's original practice of anonymity.)
You can probably gather that both of these men suffered with alcoholism at one time in their life, with Bill W. being a WWI veteran who lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and Dr. Bob stealing medical alcohol from the hospital he worked at during Prohibition.
Bill W. eventually dubbed Dr. Bob as the "Prince of Twelfth Steppers" for helping over 5,000 people recover from alcoholism, but Dr. Bob isn't the focus of this docudrama.
My Name Is Bill W. re-enacts Bill's own spiral from successful stockbroker to threats of "wet brain," saved by a spiritual awakening that triggered his friendship with Dr. Bob and the establishment of AA.
Daniel Petrie's dynamic biography mashes up the documentary format with a television drama, and it won an Emmy in 1989. James Woods, James Garner, and JoBeth Williams star in this inspiring retelling.
7. Four Good Days (2020)
Directed by Rodrigo García
Starring Glenn Close, Mila Kunis, Stephen Root
Drama (1h 40m)
The relationship between a mother and her daughter is complicated enough without addiction in the mix. It's a tightrope between supporting and enabling, being understanding and holding them accountable. The path to helping an addicted child is rocky at best.
This task is the focal point of Rodrigo García's drama, starring Mila Kunis as Molly, a drug-addicted mother who's trying to get clean. After Molly loses custody of her kids, she asks to stay at her own mother's (played by Glenn Close) house to detox.
It's the 15th time Molly has attempted to kick drugs—heroin, methadone, crack cocaine, Adderall. Everyone knows relapse is part of recovery, but Molly's chances narrow with each one and she must stay sober for four whole days before she can try a new opioid antagonist drug.
Kunis and Close's taut and tragic performances shine through the formulaic melodrama, inspired by the true story of Amanda Wendler and Libby Alexander. (The concluding scene really puts into perspective Molly's state of crisis at the start of Four Good Days.)
6. Wild (2014)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman
Adventure, Biography, Drama (1h 55m)
Sex, drugs, and trail mix. Wild is the story of one extremely underexperienced woman's transition from heroin abuse to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. (For context, this is a five-month-long trek that covers 2,650 miles of gorgeous but dangerous natural land.)
Reese Witherspoon plays the apparent madwoman Cheryl, who uproots her life to complete the trail from California to Washington without so much as a proper pair of hiking boots.
Spurred on by the death of her mother, her divorce from her husband, and the abortion of her baby, Cheryl transforms her life from numb sex with strangers to panoramic mountain views.
It's hard to believe anyone could actually achieve this, but Cheryl Strayed is a real-life woman who penned her memoirs Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012.
Jean-Marc Vallée's simultaneously abstract-yet-grounded, dreamy-yet-thrilling adaptation was nominated for two Oscars.
5. Half Nelson (2006)
Directed by Ryan Fleck
Starring Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps
Drama (1h 46m)
We're used to seeing Ryan Gosling as the chiseled cool guy (and in recent years, the quirky funny guy) who charms and/or punches his way through mainstream movies. But Half Nelson hangs back in the lesser-known vaults of his filmography.
In Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays a Brooklyn history teacher named Dan Dunne, whose unorthodox teaching methods and disregard for the rules make him more able to connect with his middle-class students, conversing with them rather than talking at them.
He frequently shows up in dark sunglasses and nursing a headache, but not in an innocent Jack-Black-School-of-Rock kind of way. Actually, Dan Dunne has a serious cocaine habit.
Half Nelson centers on one particular teacher-student relationship after a troubled, quiet girl named Drey (played by Shareeka Epps) finds Dan freebasing in the school locker room. The tight close-ups in this scene emphasize the panic, terror, shame, and loneliness of drug binges, as Dan begs Drey not to leave him on the borderline of an overdose.
Much pastier and skinnier than we're used to, Ryan Gosling's depiction of a witty and likable guy who's desperate to fill the void is vastly underappreciated (at least in mainstream circles).
Director Ryan Fleck circles back to Dan and Drey's strained friendship at the end of Half Nelson, where she waits for him to clean up from a night out and they laugh together on the sofa.
4. Ray (2004)
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Starring Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Kerry Washington
Biography, Drama, Music (2h 32m)
The majority of the population could never play the piano (or saxophone, or organ, or trumpet, or clarinet...) half as well as Ray Charles could. Impressive given that he was blind and bombed out on heroin.
The musical legend was first introduced to the drug while touring on the Chitlin' Circuit, where black musicians could perform during the 1930s amid segregation laws.
After being picked up by Atlantic Records, Charles skyrocketed. But at home, his pregnant wife scolded him for using. It took around two decades for Charles to address his issues, only because he was forced to by the court after being arrested for possession.
In Ray, Jamie Foxx doesn't just play Ray Charles—he breathes him in, embodies his soul, and even glues his eyes shut for authenticity, effectively portraying the damaged, charismatic icon.
Hollywood biopics need to sentimentalize a bit, but even though Charles eventually kicked heroin, he still continued to abuse alcohol for the rest of his days. Still, he led a long and successful life.
3. Flight (2012)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez, Don Cheadle
Drama, Thriller (2h 18m)
Some people can't even get out of bed when they're hungover, while others can fly planes. They're known as functional alcoholics. In Flight, Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington) doesn't just function—he saves 96 lives in an airplane crash despite flying drunk.
His quick-thinking heroics aside, Whip is still taken to court after the hospital makes a toxicology report while he's unconscious. Did the plane falter due to mechanical issues or Whip's intoxication? Either way, he was illegally coked up and drinking vodka OJs on the job.
It's hard to dodge the bullets of addiction drama clichés, but Robert Zemeckis's grounded character study is professional, sympathetic, and engrossing from start to finish.
Plus, Washington's performance has earned him spots in countless "Best Acting" compilations, especially for the scene where he confesses to being drunk in court. Like many addicts, Whip finds sobriety in prison and helps support other inmates on their own recovery journeys.
2. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Directed by Scott Kalvert
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lorraine Bracco, Marilyn Sokol
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 42m)
We all know that Leonardo DiCaprio is a phenomenal actor, but it's easy to forget his acting range due to his Hollywood heartthrob image and his ladies-man millionaire bravado.
DiCaprio was a phenomenal actor from a young age, impressing critics in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Romeo + Juliet. But there was also The Basketball Diaries, which is up there among DiCaprio's best performances, the agony of heroin addiction pounding through the screen.
Scott Kalvert's grimy biopic is based on Jim Carroll, a punky American poet in New York. Far away from the cozy nostalgia of most coming-of-age films, Jim becomes addicted to drugs in high school while his best friend is dying of leukemia.
Following his friend's death, Jim's depression and mischief go into overdrive as he swaps high school for the streets. The scene where Jim begs his mother for drug money through the door is particularly harrowing and could've easily won DiCaprio an early Oscar.
Thankfully, Jim sweats it all out in prison, then later publishes the drug-fueled poetry he's constantly scribbling throughout The Basketball Diaries.
1. Beautiful Boy (2018)
Directed by Felix van Groeningen
Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney
Biography, Drama (2h)
Beautiful Boy hits so hard not only because it's based on a true story, but because it's told from the viewpoint of a father.
Unlike many addicts, Nic Sheff (played by Timothée Chalamet) grew up in a loving middle-class home and was close to his family. But even that didn't stop him from getting hooked on crystal meth as a teenager.
His journalist father David (played by Steve Carell) recorded the experience of trying to help his son in a New York Times article called "My Addicted Son." This piece went on to become the memoirs upon which Beautiful Boy is based, directed by Felix van Groeningen.
The struggles of Nic and David as they endure hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses paint the relentlessness of addiction for all parties. Yet, there's a love and warmth that strikes through the heartache of Beautiful Boy, which diverges from the usual darkness of addiction movies.
That's not to say it's an easy watch—especially for parents—but it does go to show that even someone in dire straits like Nic can find the light, who now lives happily married and clean in Los Angeles.