Guest blog by SMART Recovery Facilitator Ted Perkins
As a veteran of the film industry who’s also a SMART Recovery meeting facilitator, I enjoy finding films that tackle the subject of alcohol abuse. I’ve rented every film there is, from dark and daring classics like LOST WEEKEND and DAYS OF WINE & ROSES, to contemporary popcorn movies like 28 DAYS and CLEAN & SOBER – to name just a few.
I always wondered if films or TV series could be useful discussion topics for other people in recovery besides myself, so I decided to open a discussion about this possibility with my weekly SMART Recovery participants.
At first, we spent a few minutes sharing opinions about recovery-films much like an online film club. But then a deeper potential was revealed: We quickly discovered that there are many ways to relate the themes of most films back to SMART Recovery principles and toolkit exercises. We were onto something interesting.
At their core, alcohol-themed films are morality plays, cautionary tales in one form or another. But not always. I recently encountered a notable exception in my iTunes recommendation queue: ANOTHER ROUND, a film which recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture. You can purchase or rent it on all platforms or see it for free if you have a HULU account.
It’s written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a Danish filmmaker who has a reputation as an enfant terrible of world cinema because of his outspoken criticism of accepted cinematic conventions and disdain for over-produced Hollywood blockbusters.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I rented the film, but as we discussed the film in my weekly meeting, it dawned on us that ANOTHER ROUND is actually the cinematic equivalent of a 2-hour SMART Recovery Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) exercise writ large on 35mm!
Before I discuss the film, some words of caution: If watching scenes of people drinking alcohol is a trigger for you, consider some other film. And if you’re triggered by scenes of beautiful, happy, well-adjusted people drinking A LOT of alcohol in a consequence-free environment where excess actually enhances the quality of their lives, then you might want to unplug your TV altogether.
But triggers aside, I think there is probably no more fascinating, insightful nor honest exploration of the topic of alcohol use and abuse than ANOTHER ROUND. Vinterberg has succeeded in dramatizing the essential mystery of drinking itself: Why does a substance that makes many people’s lives so awesome end up harming others’? How is it that some people’s lives are enhanced by drinking, while others’ are destroyed? My SMART Recovery meeting participants and I ask ourselves this all the time.
To explore this dichotomy, Vinterberg and his writing colleague Tobias Lindholm set the film at a Danish high school where copious amounts of beer drinking by the students is an acceptable and time-honored tradition (the legal age to buy beer and wine in Denmark is 16). The school’s history teacher, Martin (played by ex-James Bond Casino Royale super-villain Mads Mikkelsen), is in a funk. His marriage is on auto-pilot going nowhere, and the quality of his teaching is so uninspired that all his students’ parents call a PTA meeting to complain.
Martin joins his work colleagues Tommy, Nikolaj and Peter for an alcohol-soaked dinner to lament their similarly bleak situations in life: Tommy is a bored PE teacher who dislikes children. Nikolaj is a psych teacher who hasn’t slept in years because his children always wet the bed. And Peter is the school’s choir director whose ears bleed every time his students try to sing.
But it’s nothing that eighteen rounds of drinks can’t fix. The evening devolves into a midnight soccer game in the park that looks like a bunch of children falling all over each other. But one chestnut emerges, however: Nikolaj tells his friends about a little-known Danish doctor who claims that humans were born with a blood alcohol level that’s TOO LOW. According to his philosophy, maximum human productivity, potential and happiness can only be achieved by maintaining a BAC of .05%. All day long.
And so the four friends agree to conduct and document an experiment to see what will happen if they stay continually buzzed from 8am to 8pm every day. Now those of us in recovery know EXACTLY what will happen. Or do we? This is where the film gets REALLY interesting.
Turns out that at this particular Danish high school, daily drinking is not just a wondrous feeling, but a boon to one’s teaching career. Tomas loosens up enough to bring history alive to his students. Their exam grades skyrocket. Similarly, Tommy begins to enjoy coaching little league soccer, and his team wins more games. And Peter’s idea to turn off the lights and have his students hold hands during choir practice sees them all suddenly sing like angels.
Tomas’ newfound success also spills over (forgive the pun) into his romantic life. He and his wife Anika finally click, and the family goes on a long-delayed camping trip. They have an actual conversation with their two teenage sons instead of watching them watch their iPads. Tomas and Anika make love – and actually love each other – for the first time in years. And all of this thanks to a BAC of 0.05%!
Now, if this were where the story ends, ANOTHER ROUND would be little more than a 2-hour infomercial for Tuborg Beer, Denmark’s finest. But it doesn’t end here. To Vinterberg’s credit, the second and third acts of the film reveal themselves as fully balanced, honest explorations of what anyone in SMART Recovery already understands all too well. In the words of Hollywood legend Billy Wilder: “One is too many, and a hundred’s not enough….”
Predictably, Tomas and his buddies are so delighted with the experiment’s results that they decide to push the envelope. Why not up their daily dosage to sustain a BAC of 0.06% Or maybe 0.1%? And hell, if you’re going to go to all the trouble, why not just go all the way to 0.2%?
Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what happens next. Bad stuff, basically: Tomas slams into a wall and gives himself a bloody nose at a school staff meeting. He passes it off as history-teaching-related stress. Nikolaj can barely climb the stairs to his bedroom, and once he does he becomes the bed-wetter of the family. Tommy shows up blotto to an admin meeting. But this being socialist Denmark, he’ll likely wind up on paid leave, free 5-star rehab in the French Riviera, and a raise.
It’s choir director Peter who seems to suffer the fewest consequences from experimental day drinking. Moderation works so well for him that he spreads the word by helping an anxious student ace his final exams with a quick shot of vodka under the table.
What is so relevant and appealing about the film is how Vinterberg allows each character to personify different levels of alcohol-related repercussions – from moderate to severe. The drinking experiment has different results for each participant, just like actual drinking has for everybody in real life. Most can handle it. Some can’t. Some really can’t.
It would have been easy for Vinterberg to dwell on the obvious extremes, but he does the opposite through the character of Tomas. His experience of alcohol use and misuse is the most fully explored and multi-dimensional of the four friends. At first a teetotaler, later an alcohol-curious novitiate, and eventually a seasoned pro who wakes up face plastered to the sidewalk, Tomas is a reflection of the trajectory that many people in recovery have experienced.
So does Martin learn his “lesson” by the end? Does moderate alcohol use inevitably lead to misuse? Why do some lose control while others thrive?
Vinterberg doesn’t answer these questions. He leaves them hanging in the air, savory nuggets for debate. Some SMART Recovery participants may find this lack of clear answers frustrating, others may find it fascinating. I believe that at the end of the day, there really are no easy answers. Everybody in SMART Recovery learns a different lesson about alcohol that can only be gained through the (often painful) experience of using or abusing it. Clearly there are some benefits (at least at the beginning of one’s drinking career), and obviously there are consequences (towards the end).
I was pleased to find that ANOTHER ROUND generated a wonderful debate among my SMART meeting participants and led us all to reflect on the CBA exercise and several other toolkit exercises. As such, it was extremely useful, and highly accessible (even with Danish subtitles), and I highly recommend that anyone in SMART Recovery check it out (but only if it won’t trigger you)!
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