Oslo, August 31st: A Believable But Bleak Portrait of Recovery

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

John Steinbeck once wrote, “A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many.”  His words aptly describe recovery from addiction—an experience chronicled in the new Norwegian film Oslo August 31st. The film follows a day in the life of a man nearing the end of his treatment for heroin addiction. What makes this particular day so significant for Anders, the film’s protagonist, is that he has been granted a day-long leave from his treatment facility.

Joachim Trier Oslo August 31-The opening, with Anders’s failed suicide attempt, à la Virginia Woolf (he puts rocks in his jacket pockets and steps into a lake) sets a tone of suspense from the outset: will Anders remain sober during his short but significant leave of absence, or will his precarious emotional state lead him to relapse?

We follow Anders for 24 hours as he returns to his home city of Oslo, where all of his old demons await. We watch from an intimate but distant standpoint as he confronts the friends and family members he’s been “confronting” via proxy in role-playing therapy groups for months.

Throughout the movie, the filmmaker does an excellent job of conveying just how challenging sobriety can be for someone in Anders’s vulnerable position. First, Anders visits an old friend who is completely unable to make him feel less melancholy or alone. Next up is Anders’s sister, who sends her girlfriend as a stand-in to her dinner date with Anders—out of fear, we learn, that Anders would have shown up high or not at all. His stability is further tested when he heads to a job interview and finds himself admitting to his struggle with drug abuse. Met with silence from his potential employer, Anders quickly gives up and exits the interview.

As the day turns to night, Anders faces countless temptations in the forms of drugs, alcohol, and ex-girlfriends. But it’s those simple, staggered daytime vignettes where the real meat of Oslo’s message lies: in the honest portrayal of the painful, awkward, but necessary interactions of early recovery. Reminiscent of another understated rehab-furlough film, Rachel Getting Married, Oslo’s perspective on recovery is refreshing in its brutal, but notably un-tragic, honesty. It reveals the trudging difficulty of recovery (“one day at a time”) but peppers it with tiny moments of beauty in the Oslo summertime.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls Oslo “neither sensationalistic nor punishingly bleak,” which is true for the most part. However, neither the Times nor NPR had anything to say about the film’s ending, when (spoiler alert) Anders finally taps into the stash of heroin he’s been carrying around with him all night. He shoots up, lies down, the camera zooms out, and the credits roll. We are left with many, but perhaps not enough, questions. We know Anders was carrying a large amount of heroin, but exactly how much did he inject? Is this a mere relapse, or an intentional overdose—Anders’s second suicide attempt of the day?

Either way, the ending is where Oslo veers into predictable – and predictably tragic – territory. Although the film offers Anders a myriad of potential paths at any given moment, its conclusion paints a stereotypically negative picture that we’ve seen in so many films before. The ending also departs from the film’s universal theme and its refreshing open-endedness. Sure, many addicts relapse, and some die—but not all of them. Every recovering addict, however, has to deal with the discomfort of returning home and rediscovering who they are without drugs. It’s a pity that Oslo abandons this universal view in favor of a stereotypical conclusion.

Of course, no one wants a film like this to have a perfect, Disneyesque happy ending; that would be dishonest. But Oslo’s ending, with its indirect insistence upon the hopelessness of recovery and the futility of treatment, does a disservice to the countless men and women who have successfully begun new lives in recovery. These successes deserve to be portrayed, too—not just the tragic losses.

Emma Edelman and Kate Schmier
Blog Editors
Phoenix House

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1 Comment

  • Recovery is made even harder because once an individual leaves treatment and has an occasion to seek medical advice for an unrelated problem, the doctors who are not knowledgeable about addiction with prescribe a drug that will trigger the whole cycle all over again . . .my mother went through 15 treatment programs (28-day programs) over 20 years and would achieve and maintain her sobriety until her doctor would prescribe valium or a pain killer for some other medical issue . . .despite explaining her situation, the doctors ignored her addictive history as an alcoholic . . .she was fine as long as she stayed away from doctors outside of the treatment field . . .