Finding Compassion, or Why My Mom is My Tripwire

Chase Joliet on writing, recovery and the roots of his debut feature, Grapefruit.

Writing for me has become a necessity, something I have to do every day in order to survive. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true, so help me God.

If I don’t find a way to let the little hamster in my head, hopped up on steroids, run on that small plastic spinning wheel, wired to my inner dialogue, it can turn negative rather quickly. I have to get it out. My self-destructive self is well-equipped to kick some ass; I know him well. I survived my twenties, I’m not in jail, I didn’t die. But I was kicked out of high school, I did go to rehab and I did regularly buy cocaine from a 65-year-old man with seven stents in his heart and a bottle of Crown Royal leaning against his seat, on the floorboard of his Chevy truck. He’d spit as he talked, “Moderation is the hardest lesson you’ll ever learn, son.” He cared, which is an odd thing to say for a drug dealer, but I’d rather not call him that. Maybe “capitalist” is more fitting. (Don’t worry I’m not going to make this political, because I’d rather not be boring.) He would call and check up on me from time to time, we’d shoot the shit, he’d offer to give me his old suits from the eighties that didn’t fit anymore. If there was a humanitarian award for best drug dealer, he would have won and I bet his speech would have been amazing. Maybe, that’s why I never went off the deep end, like so many I know have. I partied hard, but I always had this steadfast awareness, this tripwire hidden in the sweating jungle of my head, that helped me know when it was time to go home. I’m lucky that way. The truth is the tripwire might as well be nicknamed “Mom.”

Chase Joliet with his mother, sometime in the not-too-distant past.

My mom has been sober for almost 12 years. (Hold for applause.)

She got sober when I was in my early twenties, in the heyday of my reckless partying. I’ve seen her run the gamut and come out the other side beautifully intact, reborn, glowing, and no one appreciates the glow more than me, because I’ve seen the darkness. I’ve seen her imprisoned by her past and defined by her trauma, and I only know this because we are so much alike. I am my mother’s son and she is my tripwire.

Through making my first feature film, Grapefruit, I found a lot of the healing and compassion that she now demonstrates. I wrote about three broken people, somewhere in middle America, flawed and imperfect, trying their best at this thing called life, trying their best to save themselves, only to learn that saving one another is more important. I am every character I write. I am Travis, the protagonist, recently divorced and released from jail, a metaphor for his own guilt and shame. And I am Billie, the wildly alive young woman Travis meets at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, running as fast as she can away from herself, slowly pouring herself out. I know what you’re thinking, it sounds like the classic stock print of a manic pixie dream girl, but she’s so much more than that to me. The universe provides us with the people, connection, characters in the storylines of our life that help us navigate where to go and transform into who we inevitably become. This story is just as much about her as it is about Travis. They each become the person they wanted to be in their lives.

Chase Joliet and Rosanna Arquette in Grapefruit.

And then there’s Evelyn, the 50-year-old mom, three years sober and unfairly hard on herself, trapped in her own ideas of perfection and addiction. The house is in order, everything is in its right place, because for addicts it’s about the need for control. I can’t remember who said this, it may have been my philosophical drug dealer: “The idea of control is man’s greatest illusion.” Each character learns and grows in ways that I myself have. Evelyn eventually takes a baseball bat to the walls of her home, screaming, “I’m redecorating!” It’s the crash of her own metaphorical prison.

I care about each and every one of my characters because I’ve learned to care about myself. If I could give each of them a hug, I would … But looking back on the movie we strung together with a very limited budget in 14 days, in a way I feel like I already have. And the reward for this self-care comes from witnessing how Grapefruit is affecting the people who see it.

Chase Joliet with Steph Barkley in Grapefruit.

I can happily say, I don’t need a tripwire anymore. I found my passion. I love crafting stories and creating characters, all little fragments of myself dug up from the deep subconscious well of my being, shaped by those I love and those who have loved and cared for me. Is it weird to include my old friend, the drug dealer? In his words, “If you don’t pour yourself into something, you’ll pour yourself out.” Was he even real? Or was he another one of my characters crafted to tell a story. All I know is, I found something to pour myself into.

Chase Joliet is an actor and filmmaker from Dallas, Texas, whose debut feature as writer-director, Grapefruit, in which he stars opposite Rosanna Arquette and Steph Barkley, is now on the festival circuit. He worked with legendary director Terrence Malick for a number of years on To the Wonder, Voyage of Time and Song to Song, after which he produced his first independent feature film, Krisha, which won SXSW Grand Jury award and audience award before playing at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Chase won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2016 Indie Spirit awards and went on to help develop Trey Edward Shults’ second feature, It Comes at Night. Chase’s short film directorial debut, the comedic short Everything Mattress, won multiple audience awards and is currently being sold in European Territories.