Last Updated on November 21, 2020 by Dr. Ronaye Calvert-Conley
Who doesn’t love a good film?
For a few hours, movies transport you to another life you’ll never experience.
If you’re struggling with drug or alcohol dependence, however, movies about addiction can hit too close to home.
These movies about drug addiction and alcoholism all detail the rollercoaster of life on the ride of addiction in unique ways.
Movies about Addiction: A Fine Line Between Glorification and Heartache
Some movies about drugs or alcohol may appear to glorify dangerous behavior due to a lighthearted atmosphere or tone.
Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. In most cases, the characters live extremely bleak and depressing lives.
What matters is how you interpret the movie. If a movie sends a clear message that drug use is bad but details scenes of substance use, that movie may not be a smart choice for people in the initial stages of recovery, for example.
Alcoholic and Drug Movies with More Than Meets the Eye
Not every movie that underscores addiction is obvious.
In some cases, a character struggles with substance abuse and unless you’ve also been in their shoes, you may not even notice the extent that the addiction actually relates to the plot.
In American society, alcoholism among women has become extremely normalized in the past few years with mimosas at brunch and “mommy juice,” for example. Subtle references in movies about addiction often nod to things like this in society.
28 Movies about Drug Addiction and Alcoholism
Here are the top movies about drugs and alcoholism to add to your queue.
- The Basketball Diaries
The Basketball Diariesisn’t your average coming of age movie but for many teens, it’s much more relatable than the others.
A young Leonardo DiCaprio navigates the hard streets of New York in the late 60s teetering between a productive school life on the basketball team and full-blown addiction on the streets. Every addict can relate to the lead character’s struggle with shoddy friends and finding comfort wherever you can find it.
Fun Fact: The Basketball Diariesis based on the real experiences of Jim Carroll in his book.
- The Rum Diary
Johnny Depp’s character in The Rum Diaryis a textbook hedonist surviving his day-to-day on nothing but alcohol and adrenaline as fuel. The hangover scenes are physically painful to watch.
Although it isn’t one of the classic movies about addiction, you can’t deny the role alcoholism plays. Depp’s character, a journalist, takes a job in Puerto Rico to escape his ho-hum life in New York where he’s no doubt burned enough bridges – an escape act that many alcoholics can relate to.
- Half Nelson
In one of Ryan Gosling’s more offbeat roles, he plays a high school history teacher in Brooklyn leading a double life: everyone’s favorite teacher by day and crack smoker by night. The non-cliché storyline is a refreshing take on the realities of addiction missing from many movies about addiction.
- Pulp Fiction
As one of the movies about addiction, it’s easy to forget that John Travolta’s character is, in fact, a heroin addict. Addiction takes a backseat in Pulp Fictionto make way for the even crazier antics – but it’s always there.
Of course, no one can forget the overdose scene where Mia mistakes Vincent’s heroin for cocaine and overdoses – a frightening scene many addicts are all too familiar with.
- Requiem for a Dream
Movies about addiction don’t get much grittier and bleaker thanRequiem for a Dream. The graphic scenes of cooking heroin and getting high are sharply contrasted by the lowest lows of prison intake and prostitution.
Every character in the movie suffers from delusions of grandeur and the movie ends without much of a resolution – which somehow makes the film even more relatable. In a nuanced approach, Requiem also touches on the devastating extent of codependency between Jarod Leto’s character and his mother, played by Ellen Burstyn.
Thirteencame in hard and fast at a time when coming of age movies were light and airy. People knew preteens were experimenting with dangerous drugs and sex, but no one was willing to touch the topic in film.
Thirteen displays the harsh reality behind preteen drug use: family problems, abuse, isolation. The movie reminds you that it’s not always about fitting in – everyone needs an escape.
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall
You may say that Forgetting Sarah Marshalldoesn’t fit into a list of movies about addiction, but you should re-examine Jason Segel’s decent after his girlfriend dumps him.
When he arrives in Hawai’i, he starts drinking heavily from the moment he wakes up in the morning. Had Mila Kunis’s character and some good friends not been there to help him see the bright side of life, this movie could have taken a very dark turn!
Not to mention, if you’ve ever gone through 12-step programs, you’ve no doubt crossed paths with the smug in-your-face sober-types like Russell Brand’s character in the film (who still manages to stay clean while everyone around him swings back bottles of wine at dinner).
- SLC Punk!
SLC Punk!is one of the more nuanced movies about drugs and addiction on this list. Yes, most of the characters take LSD regularly, but Heroin Bob doesn’t and he’s the most interesting character.
Bob’s dad is an alcoholic suffering from psychosis. The experience was enough to turn Bob off to all drugs – except for alcohol and nicotine, of course. Sadly, the movie ends on a gruesome and unexpected note.
- The Big Lebowski
You can’t ignore the fact that Lebowski is a non-functioning alcoholic. His only real responsibility in life is his bowling league. That’s why he takes it upon himself to seriously investigate the theft of his rug.
Most of the problems he faces in the movie wouldn’t exist were he not addicted to alcohol. If the movie didn’t have a classic Cohen Brothers’ comedic tone, it would indeed be extremely dark.
- Bad Santa
In true comedy fashion, many scenes are over the top. However, Bad Santastill manages to provide a realistic peek into the average holiday season for an alcoholic struggling to keep it together.
Trainspottingis one of the more artistic movies about addiction on this list. Somehow, the artsy cinematography makes the film even more relatable by visually describing scenes that words and real-life images alone just can’t.
If you’ve seen this film as an addict, you no doubt vividly remember two scenes: the toilet scene where Ewan McGregor is digging for his lost fix and the scene where he’s going through withdrawals alone.
Despite the witty tone, most of the scenes are incredibly dark and deal with intense concepts that addicts face in reality including deaths from preventable causes (and not necessarily overdoses).
Russell Brand starred in the 2011 remake of this classic 80s film about a “perpetually drunk” aka alcoholic rich boy. Many working-class people may not find the bourgeois problems relatable (like contemplating an arranged marriage) but the movie does show that addiction permeates all classes.
- Days of Wine and Roses
If you’re looking for silver screen classics, don’t miss Days of Wine and Roses: a timeless and authentic choice for your movies about addiction list with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!
Despite debuting in 1962, the subject is incredibly nuanced: both characters weren’t alcoholics until they found each other and developed a codependent habit.
- 28 Days
Although 28 Daysis listed as a comedy, the plot is actually extremely dark and real: It’s about the deteriorating struggle of an alcoholic journalist facing 28 days in court-ordered rehab.
28 Daysshows that being “the life of the party” isn’t necessarily a good thing and addiction can spin your life out of control in the blink of an eye.
Smashed provides an updated look at the Days of Wine and Rosesstory: an alcoholic couple with the main plot focusing on the woman’s story.
Many alcoholics will relate to Kate’s lowered inhibitions while drunk when she decides to smoke crack with a random woman she picked up to give a ride.
The movie ends without much closure which, if you’re an addict or alcoholic, is extremely relatable because you can never predict tomorrow.
- Natural Born Killers
Although Natural Born Killersisn’t one of the movies about addiction on this list that squarely focuses on drug use, it does play a vital role in the characters’ backstories.
Juliette Lewis’s character is the daughter of a violent and abusive alcoholic who drastically shapes her modern-day self – constantly thrill-seeking for the next high. The two main characters also dabble in psychedelic mushrooms. This serves as a turning point in the movie when it sends them on a downward spiral.
Blowis a long movie that details the real peaks and valleys of living in the high-level world of cocaine smuggling.
Based on a true story, Johnny Depp’s character was set up for a comfortable life on the east coast with a hard-working family, but he instead decides to gamble on something greater – and with a much higher risk too. George Jung served a 22-year federal sentence for drug trafficking and now frequently does interviews.
- The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Streetshines a much-needed light on the casual drug abuse among god-like figures with so much money and power that the law can’t touch them.
If you’re from the millennial generation, you’ve only heard stories about Quaaludes: sedative and hypnotic pills that disappeared (even abroad) after an international DEA crackdown. The Wolf of Wall Streethighlights how commonplace drugs like these were in the 80s Wall Street scene.
The first movie about addition with Angelina Jolie on this list, Giaportrays the life of a struggling model just trying her best to make it in New York.
A combination of loneliness and despair push Jolie’s character to cocaine and heroin use with a swift slide into addiction – an extremely relatable plot if you’re an addict.
Giadoesn’t end on a happy note. Like many before her, Jolie’s character contracts HIV through a dirty needle – a stark reminder of the lifelong consequences of abuse.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Remove the funny one-liners and witty tone from the movie and you’re left with the bleak life of two outcasts dependent on drugs and alcohol.
Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro find themselves in absurd situations that only two people in the grips of addiction could ever create – with seemingly no end in sight.
- The Doors
It’s no secret that The Doors frontman Jim Morison struggled with addiction through most of his professional career. Prepare yourself, this movie is long. However, it does show how addiction slowly crept into Morison’s life and took over.
The 60s and 70s were a wild time when heroin first emerged on the counterculture scene, HIV wasn’t a well-known threat, and casual drug use had a certain innocence to it.
- Girl, Interrupted
The second Angelina Jolie flick on this list of movies about addiction, Girl, Interrupted shows what life was like on the inside during the transformative period of the 60s.
Addiction and drug use play more of supporting roles in this film with mental health issues taking the lead. However, it’s important to remember the dual-diagnosis people face with substance abuse and mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Remember that this movie is set in the 60s when topics like mental health and substance abuse among women were taboo and dual diagnoses were unheard of.
- Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)
While Long Day’s Journey into Night debuted on the big screen in 1962, its plot takes place in 1912, based on a play by Eugene O’Neil. Long Day’s Journey into Nightwas the Requiem for a Dreamof its time.
The film details one day in the bleak life of an upper-class family struggling with both maintaining their status and addiction. Two sons and a father are addicted to alcohol and a mother addicted to (then-legal) morphine.
Times have changed, but if you’ve experienced addiction you’ll surely relate to the theme of co-dependency throughout the movie.
An alcoholic pilot is a terrifying thought. If you’ve struggled with addiction, you’ll probably find comfort in the fact that you’ve never crashed a plane during your time using.
However, Denzel Washington’s character does face one obstacle most addicts will find relatable: getting sober only to have old actions come back to bite you, sometimes hard.
- Drugstore Cowboy
Drugstore Cowboy has turned into a cult classic over the years. James Fogel drafted the book (which the movie is based on) as an autobiography. The book wasn’t published until the movie was already out and Fogel was released from prison.
The movie details the life of several couples struggling with addiction and making ends meet in unsavory ways as they hop from one town to the next. Drugstore Cowboyis another one of the movies about addiction on this list with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!
Traffic isn’t quite like the other movies about addiction on this list. Instead of simply following the life of addicts, you see multiple angles and catch a glimpse into how substance use affects all aspects of society.
Trafficstands out in that it touches a plot that many Hollywood directors won’t: the role judges and politicians play in the illicit international drug trade. Yes, it’s still a fictional movie but the consequences are real.
- The Panic in Needle Park
If you’re a millennial or part of generation Z, you might initially mistake a young Al Pacino for Jake Gyllenhaal in this gritty and real 1971 film.
Panic in Needle Park follows the life of a young heroin-addicted couple in New York and highlights some dark situations like a back-alley abortion. The content of the movie truly seems ahead of its time looking back on it now. Sadly, things really haven’t changed much.
It’s rare for Hollywood to highlight addiction in the Black community unless it’s a comedy about smoking cannabis. Despite becoming blind by the age of 7, Ray Charles turned himself into a household name through his incredible music career.
However, many people don’t realize that he also struggled with heroin addiction and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in the 60s. Sadly, many people don’t know (because the movie doesn’t explain) that Charles also faced alcoholism after he recovered from heroin.
Unfortunately, he died a few months before the film was set to premiere.
The Bottom Line
Movies about addiction can play a key role in awareness and recovery.
In a society that normalizes many aspects of addiction (like alcoholism) and gives addicts a cold shoulder, it’s important to make people aware of the devastation that addiction causes and how it affects life on several levels.
If you’re suffering from addiction, movies about drug addiction or alcoholism can offer some solace to help you feel a little less alone in the struggle.