Review: “Cherry” a fanciful adaptation of an honest book about addiction

The Russo brothers’ production misses the point entirely.

by Lucy Turnipseed | 4/5/21 2:05am

cherry-film-graphic
by Mia Nelson / The Dartmouth

“Cherry” by Nico Walker, while refreshingly candid and meaningful in book form, suffers from its prolonged length and an overreliance on tropes in its adaptation to the big-screen. The directors, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, clearly tried to create something profound out of Walker’s sincere story, yet the two-and-a-half hour film ended up cheesy nonetheless. Every moment in the film is self-conscious, hindering the genuine story from shining through.

Viewers follow the main character through college, basic training, deployment, a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis that comes with an opioid prescription and, eventually, a bank robbery. The film tries to tell the story of how the main character — played by Tom Holland — who is by all accounts an average young American, so easily fell victim to the opioid crisis at its peak. 

Though in its original written form the story is semi-autobiographical and feels deeply sincere, the film opens with gospel music, an aggressive red filter and a deadpan Holland that collectively have the opposite effect. Holland immediately breaks the fourth wall, narrating the words that in Walker’s book sound profound but on Holland’s tongue come across as pretentious. Throughout, the film is difficult to digest, forcing viewers to labor through extraneous artistic choices — including the insertion of scenes at the beginning of each section with an unaesthetic red-toned filter — that only detract from the story.

With its exaggerated details, the movie only becomes more gimmicky by the minute. It is clear the Russos tried to stick to Walker’s original intent of laying bare the everyday experience of an opioid addict — but it is also evident that they failed. Following the scenes Walker sets out in his book, the Russos dress up each scene unnecessarily instead of letting the story speak for itself. 

In the book, the narrator remains nameless, adding to the sense that the main character could be anyone and that even seemingly nice, normal, young Americans can fall into the grasp of opioid addiction. In the movie, even this detail, which is fundamentally just an omission of a specific narrational identity, is overdone. Holland’s Army uniform is labeled in stark, black letters, “soldier,” and just like that, all the mystery and meaning that comes with having an unnamed narrator disappears. 

The artistic choices the Russos make consistently drain Walker’s story of meaning. From superimposing large, capitalized red letters onto the screen to putting classical music behind a shot of pills and heroin cascading down onto the floor, the directors turned a sincere tale into a shtick.

Ciara Bravo, who plays Holland’s love interest Emily, is one of the film’s only saving graces. The moments in which she appears are some of the most touching, and through her eyes we can see how a young Army wife turns into a desperate drug addict while the world continues to view her as a quotidian student. Bravo brought genuine, palpable emotion to each of her scenes.

The moments where we see her frustration, her struggle and eventually, her overdose are the times in which I felt most connected to the storyline. Bravo strikes an authentic note that feels refreshing when compared to the rest of the film. 

One major departure from the book that is actually done well is the ending. In the book, the story ends with the main character being arrested following one of his robberies, and readers are told that the real-life author is set to be released from jail in the next couple of years. 

The Russos ran with this autobiographical tidbit about Walker, merging reality with fiction by showing the main character going to and being released from jail in a compelling final montage. Holland exits the prison into the parking lot, where Bravo is waiting to take him home. 

This scene is a culminating and emotional one, pulling viewers into the moment and reminding them of the power of addiction. The scene, unadulterated by narration, visual effects or even dialogue, is arguably the best of the film.

The fact that one of the movie’s most captivating scenes did not actually occur in the novel leads me to believe that the Russos are, in fact, capable of directing a wonderful movie. In the case of “Cherry,” it seems that they simply put too much pressure on getting the movie adaptation of a book perfect. Without the constraint of creating a great adaptation, the characters would seem much more authentic.

To me, it seems that the directors of the film were going for a more romanticized  version of the book. The Russos attempted to show Holland and his addiction through multitudes of audio and visual effects and excessive amounts of dramatically read narration. 

But the directors seem to have missed the point of “Cherry”; at its root, the story is meant to be bare-bones, providing a raw look at the ongoing opioid crisis and those affected by it. The story presented in the movie, however, was fanciful and overwrought, a far cry from the heart-wrenching and unembellished one Walker wrote.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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