When it comes to the Russo Brothers, we all immediately think of their work within the MCU, most recently Avengers: Endgame. However, in their latest film CHERRY, based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, they use their talent as visual storytellers to bring to life the gritty reality of opioid addiction. But does style win over substance in Russo’s rendition of the novel? This critic thinks so.
The focus of CHERRY surrounds an army medic (played by Tom Holland) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who becomes a serial bank robber after an addiction to drugs puts him in debt. The film starts off with a prologue, introducing Holland at a pivotal point that we come to learn about later on. The film is broken up into sections taking place from 2002-2017 with the majority of the focus between 2002-2007. It’s during this time that the viewer will get snapshots of how the events in his life unfolded that steered him towards a path of addiction.
The story, at times, can be overwhelming due to the multiple competing storylines. I think, ultimately, there are too many themes battling for attention: romance, addiction, PTSD, war, destitution, etc. That’s not to say that chaos isn’t part of addiction, but that’s a lot to expect your viewers to grapple with in one sitting. That said, the visuals and the way in which they helped push the narrative along were top-notch. Look, we’re all mostly Marvel fans here. We like the look as well as the excitement and emotions that are evoked through the storytelling and characters in the MCU. And though this is done in a much different fashion than what we have seen with the MCU, the Russos are still able to use the film’s visuals as a way to engage with the audience.
As for the acting, Holland’s transformation from the beginning of the film to the end was impressive. At one point, I remember telling my partner how I couldn’t take Holland seriously when he would yell “fuck” in the movie because I was so used to seeing his clear-cut Spidey image – something that Holland seems to be actively moving away from. But, over the course of the film, it felt surprisingly natural. He grew into the harshness of the language he used, eventually growing into the character as well. I wasn’t too familiar with Ciara Bravo prior to the movie outside of her role in Into the Dark: Pure, but, in a similar fashion to Holland, she too grew into her role. That said, I never felt like she reached her full potential and would have liked to have seen her (safely) pushed to a place where she could have really explored that.
Midsommar fans will be delighted to see an appearance by Jack Reynor, who has a knack for really encompassing that “dude bro” persona (but I can attest that he’s a very sweet individual). I really enjoyed his performance as Holland’s drug dealer, Pills & Coke, and was especially impressed with his comedic timing. Furthermore, his performance is one that’ll stay with viewers far after the credits end, but that’s all I can say for fear of spoilers. I can’t end this review without also mentioning a fun, albeit brief, cameo by Damon Wayans Jr., playing a drill sergeant that comes up with one hell of a cheer while Holland’s Cherry is attending basic training.
CHERRY is a stark reminder that our environments are capable of breeding toxic scenarios and that there is very little society is willing to do to help that. That’s played out perfectly as we see Holland’s Cherry starting on his journey of addiction by trying to cash a check and becoming hostile towards the bank clerk as a result of his PTSD. And while being dragged away by security, he remarks, “I’m a war veteran!” and yet it falls on deaf ears. We, as a society, see people suffering – whether due to addiction, mental illnesses, abuse, whatever the cause, and we tend to turn a blind eye and label them “crazy” instead of taking initiative to understand the pain they are in.
Ultimately, CHERRY feels a lot like it’s trying to be a Martin Scorsese film by way of Requiem for a Dream. Though there are moments where I feel like the film captures elements of that, especially when the addiction really takes hold of Cherry, the end result doesn’t fully come together. I think it’s fascinating to watch the juxtaposition between the horrors of addiction and mental illness set against the backdrop of a perceived glossy, perfect put-together world, but there was an emotional depth that was lacking.
CHERRY features a career-turning performance by Holland but the story struggles underneath the competing themes at hand. The Russos more than deliver in terms of visual storytelling and ambitious filmmaking, but I’m not sure if the execution works as a whole. This is a film that has been at the forefront of my mind since I watched it last week and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed talking about with other people. It’s going to bring up a lot of discussions, rightfully so, and I think that’s the most important aspect of this movie. As a whole, it may not have worked for me but it’s a film I would more than recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about the effects of addiction and PTSD.
CHERRY is in select theaters and will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on March 12, 2021.