Sound of Metal: An Addiction Movie Without Drugs

Writer-director Lane Michael Stanley on how the recent Oscar winning film portrays addiction and recovery in an unusual – and very necessary – way.

When I first went to rehab in 2016, I said to the counselors there that I was not interested in 12-step programs. Now, I had never actually been to a 12-step meeting; I didn’t know anyone who had been through a 12-step program (at least, that they told me about), and I didn’t know what the program actually was (beyond an assumption that there were some steps – probably 12).

So where did my aversion come from? I can’t point to a specific piece of media or any one encounter that made me think 12-step programs wouldn’t be right for me. (Well, maybe the episode of South Park when Randy gets sober, and the boys eventually show him that he became more addicted to being sober than he had been to drinking.)

Somehow Lane wasn’t excited about this.

Somehow, across many films and television shows and cultural references, I had absorbed the idea that 12-step programs were sad, gray rooms filled with sad, boring people who introduced themselves as alcoholics and were greeted by the group in droll or hushed tones.

While the introduction part is true, I was surprised to find 12-step meetings to be incredibly fun places full of vibrancy and community. After swearing off these programs entirely, I now have five years sober, and still go to two meetings every week.

Lane with their five-year sobriety chip.

Representations of addiction are not scarce – but good representations are. To me, Sound of Metal provides us with a beautiful portrait of how addiction, relapse, and recovery work – without Ruben ever picking up a drug.

At the start of the film, we learn that Ruben has been sober for four years. When he loses his hearing, his girlfriend (and bandmate) Lou recognizes that he is in a crisis, and that he will need treatment and support. She calls his sponsor, who finds a recovery center for deaf addicts.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in Sound of Metal.

This is the first beautiful insight of the film: recovery is an ongoing process. While I have five years sober, I’ve had a number of close calls. I had a flashback-fueled panic attack about two years ago – it was so bad that I nearly drank, and had to call one of my grad school friends to literally come babysit me in my apartment. That was really embarrassing for me – while I was open about being a recovering alcoholic and sharing my sobriety milestones, I felt very vulnerable admitting that I needed help and that all my sober time could be taken away in an instant. I liked being seen as the strong alcoholic who was winning the battle against addiction; I didn’t like being seen as a weak alcoholic who needed someone to hide their roommate’s whisky.

Ruben’s stay at the recovery center has a strong tension: he wants to pursue cochlear implants, while his primary mentor Joe advises him to practice living in the silence, appreciating stillness. What Ruben does from this point forward is classic addict behavior, even if he never technically relapses. Addiction is all about impatience and easy fixes. Why spend months (or years) in therapy working on yourself and putting your life together, little by little, when you could be drunk and not care in the next 15 minutes? Recovery is about learning patience, appreciating the longer path, and facing problems that may not have solutions, or may take years of steady work to solve.

I don’t mean to say that cochlear implants are always a bad idea – that’s a highly personal decision that I can’t speak to. My meaning is that the way Ruben pursues the implants (against his mentor’s advice, at great personal cost, with an obsessive focus that skews his other priorities, and without taking time to even consider an alternative) is what we call addict behavior. Ruben pursues the cochlear implants the way an addict pursues drugs – it’s an emotional relapse, if not a chemical one.

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.

Those addictive tendencies can wreak havoc even in recovering addicts who never pick up a drug. I replaced alcohol with many things when I first got sober. Fun fact: substances aren’t the only thing you can be addicted to! When I quit drinking three months after my fiancé died of a heart attack, it was like lifting the lid off the jar that held every other self-destructive tendency I had ever had in my life. Sex, self-harm, and obsessive thinking dominated the first six months of my sobriety, which I spent living in a recovery house.

Now that I have five years sober, I try to replace alcohol with more sustainable things. Running, music, meditation, talking to friends. I’ll always be a stubborn and impatient person – but I’m getting better at recognizing when I’m signing my own death warrant.

I try to use my addictive tendencies to my advantage when I can’t quiet them. The same qualities that made me an alcoholic also make me a good filmmaker: impatience becomes drive; competitive ego becomes ambition; obsession … stays the same (let’s be honest). Recently, I premiered my first feature film, Addict Named Hal, at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, inspired by my experiences living in a recovery house.

Andrea (Khali Sykes), Amy (Natalie L’Amoreaux), Hal (Ray Roberts), Bradley (Justin Whitener), and Marcia (Nguyen Stanton) in Addict Named Hal.

In order to maintain sobriety, we addicts have to learn how to change our addictive patterns. In order to get a better understanding of addiction (and therefore better policies, better-funded research, and better prospects), we need representation that shows the joy, community, and potential found in recovery communities. Sound of Metal accomplishes both of these beautifully – without ever bringing drugs onscreen.

Lane Michael Stanley is a filmmaker, playwright, and producer. Their debut feature film, Addict Named Hal, had its world premiere at the 2021 Santa Barbara Film Festival, and is inspired by their personal experience living in a halfway house for drug and alcohol recovery. Lane’s films have shown at many festivals, including Toronto Short Film Festival, Big Apple Film Festival and Los Angeles Queer Film Festival. Lane has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today and the Austin Chronicle. They have won Best Director from Baltimore City Paper’s Best of Baltimore 2016, DC Metro Theatre Arts, and The Bad Oracle, and received the Mayor’s Individual Artist Award. Their plays have been produced by 19 theaters in eight states and Australia. For more information and upcoming projects, please visit