Adapted from a novel of the same name, Anthony and Joe Russo (“Avengers: Endgame”) tell a decidedly American story of desperation, pain and redemption in “Cherry.” The cinematic (verging on operatic) story is believable but fails to deal with some of the harsher truths of mental health, addiction and incarceration. We have seen this story many times before: An army veteran can’t cope with the sights and sounds trapped within his skull, so he turns to drugs. Drugs lead to crime and the rest proceeds as expected. For the viewer, “Cherry” is a critical journey through American delusions of purpose, of grandeur, of morality and of justice. Yet, there is much to be said of the film’s own delusions, too.
True to its source, “Cherry” is told like a novel, chopped into parts with a prologue and epilogue. Part One begins in 2002, when narrator and protagonist Cherry (Tom Holland, “Avengers: Endgame”), is attending college classes. The character is introduced as a weak, codependent boy lacking initiative and direction. He pours himself into his new girlfriend, Emily (Ciara Bravo, “Wayne”), a pretty girl with a white ribbon choker and a knowing smile who fears commitment. When Emily’s struggle to believe in love has consequences, Cherry runs off to join the army, seeking something outside himself and his world. After training to become a medic, Cherry is deployed to Iraq, where he is broken by the horrible things he sees. Returning home, a reliance on Xanax becomes OxyContin, which becomes heroin, and a foot soldier in the “war on terror” becomes a statistic in the American opioid epidemic.
This ship finds its anchor in Tom Holland. He is a master of emotion, bringing a genuine explosivity to the mental health crises which punctuate the film. Holland’s ability to fully personify the titular role gives life and individuality to an experience shared by many. Skill aside, Holland’s youth contributes to a central theme — that the young adults we send to war and bring home to suffer alone are more “young” than they are “adult.” Bravo’s spirited Emily is the perfect counterpart to the young hero, as I cannot help but see them as my peers, novitiates in the American church of war games and bootstraps-turned-tourniquets.
The film is strongest in its first act when Cherry enlists in the military. Between the allusions to “Full Metal Jacket” in basic training and the gut-wrenching battle scenes, this part of the story is the most straightforward. “Cherry” lays bare the millenarian circus that is the American military. Apocalyptic hellscapes (representing Iraq) patrolled by U.S. Army helicopters are not there for the viewer to sensationalize; they are a conscious criticism of the damage we wreak and the way it is glorified. That said, the barbarism of war is presented as a cause of Cherry’s pain when in reality it is just another symptom of capitalistic greed and bestial masculinity.
I admire the way the film portrays Cherry’s post-traumatic stress disorder as a vortex, consuming those around him with indiscriminate cruelty. As he struggles against his own demons, Emily develops a pill addiction as well, displaying how mental illness can reverberate through a community. In a poignant, tragicomic moment when the already opioid-addicted Cherry seeks treatment for his “9 out of 10” mental pain from a professional, the doctor asks if he’s familiar with OxyContin. From this point, the film becomes an addict’s uroboric saga as he and Emily chase hit after hit.
Perhaps it is because no film about addiction can hold a candle to “Requiem for a Dream,” this part fell flat, neither romanticized nor stripped nude. The viewer is invited to sympathize, rather than empathize, with Holland’s character as he loses himself in heroin. Accordingly, the procession from begging to bank robbery occurs without fanfare. Holland rescues the film from total decarbonation as his visceral response to a near-loss and his later climactic capitulation are grand and moving.
But is this grandeur not a Hollywood trick to obscure the plain truth? “Cherry” sees death, but no one in the film dies from an overdose, despite opioid overdoses taking over 400,000 American lives from 1999 to 2019. When Cherry goes to prison near the film’s conclusion, he gets clean and turns things around, becoming a mentor to other prisoners and ultimately making parole. This prison montage is set to orchestral music, making the saccharine sentimentality painfully obvious.
As Cherry finds himself and develops strength of character and will, he grows a mustache, effectively communicating the silly idea that “real” men are strong and willful leaders. I have not read Nico Walker’s novel from which this movie was adapted, so I do not know how it ends. However, if cinema is meant to evoke some kind of truth, “Cherry” deserved a less-rosy finale.
There is truth to “Cherry”: The sick farce of war is ruinous to the young individuals on the frontlines, and America fails to adequately care for these soldiers when they come home in unfathomable pain. “Cherry” sticks it to the over-prescribers of opioid painkillers and shines a light near, but not really on, the ugly reality of addiction. But when the film attempts a poetic-operatic glimpse into the criminal justice system, the truth is far from view. Fortunately, Holland’s compelling performance brings a human realness to every moment, even if that emotional personhood is imprisoned by a romantic regard for incarceration at the film’s finale.
Cherry is consistently depicted as a “hero.” He is well-mannered, kind-hearted and only hurts himself and his immediate circle. In other words, he is the model mentally-ill, opioid-addicted veteran. This is a disservice to the film and viewer, evidence of the lacquer of falsehood on a potentially true story.
That Cherry’s violence is so contained and self-directed feels inauthentic. His self-awareness and keen intuition about his mental health, appearing only to lack the willpower necessary to dig himself out of a hole he completely comprehends, is dishonest to the consuming force of addiction. Substance abuse is not merely a question of willpower. “Cherry” needed an antihero and instead has an ever-present Hollywood veneer. From Cherry’s early romance with Emily to his experience in prison, the film favors cinematic staples at the expense of raw, honest storytelling.
“Cherry” will no doubt be watched retrospectively by tomorrow’s youth, who will inevitably be enthralled by one of Tom Holland’s “early” roles, in an effort to understand the insidious forces which defined the first decade of this century. We will be able to say to our children that when this film was released in 2021 much of America had come to understand the real motivations behind our invasion of Iraq and the impacts of this war on its veterans.
We will recall our national reckoning with the opioid epidemic and the shame heaped onto Purdue Pharma and others for greed and complicity. But we will also say that in 2021 the country had yet to truly interrogate our broken criminal justice system; hopefully, our children watching “Cherry” in the future won’t still be yoked with it.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.