13 Movies About Climbing Back From Rock Bottom

These days I’m perfectly content to take inspiration from wherever it comes. It’s probably an exaggeration to suggest that the human race has reached rock bottom (I wouldn’t care to see what that looks like), but a scan of the news or even a look out the window can certainly invite the thought. In short, it’s depressing out there, and no one can be faulted for feeling a little grimmer than normal.

There’s also nothing wrong with looking for a bit of light — through social connections, music, therapy, or even movies. We glean hope from the stories of others who’ve come through, and often even imagined stories about overcoming are enough to keep us going. Stories can, occasionally, point a way toward a better future. Be warned: It’s impossible to talk about these character arcs without some heavy spoilers.

Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2

Rock-bottom: It happens before the film even starts, only witnessed in flashback: the wedding of Uma Thurman’s Bride is disrupted by her former lover, Bill, who brings along his team of assassins to kill everyone present.

Though largely a (highly effective) ninja exploitation movie pastiche, Kill Bill finds unexpected resonance by the duology’s end, as Uma’s Bride rediscovers her missing daughter and sets about starting a new life. She only does so after killing everyone who ever wronged her in a series of colourful and elaborate set pieces, so let’s read this as a metaphorical lesson about moving forward by cutting toxic ties.

Where to stream: Binge

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Rock-bottom: It’s tempting to view Chris Gardner’s lowest moment as the one during which he’s arrested for parking tickets when he’s meant to be preparing for an interview with a brokerage…but the interview is for an unpaid internship, which is at least as depressing.

The Pursuit of Happyness succeeds by grounding its rags-to-riches story in heartbreak and disappointment. Though Chris Gardner’s trajectory toward business success is improbable, it’s not impossible (as evidenced by the real-life Chris Gardner, on whom Will Smith’s character is based). Brains, hustle, and luck might, very occasionally, breed success.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Rock-bottom: Following a tragedy, Juliette Binoche’s Julie destroys the unpublished orchestral works that she wrote with her late husband before cutting all ties with her friends and family.

Blue is probably the most deeply emotional of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s impressive Three Colours trilogy (though considered of a piece, the films are only thematically related), and that’s largely down to Binoche’s subtle, but powerful, central performance. By the film’s end, she’s bravely and honestly faced her own past and made new connections in her life.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Smashed (2012)

Rock-bottom: There are a handful of candidates here, but teacher Kate Hannah’s lowest moment is most likely the film’s opening, when she vomits in front of her elementary school class and tries to cover it up by faking a pregnancy.

Despite plenty of lurid moments, Mary Elizabeth Winstead underplays her substance-dependent character, making the struggle all the more convincing. There’s no easy moment of triumph for Kate, but a flash forward reveals that stepping away from her marriage and its related co-dependencies was the trigger for a hard-won period of recovery.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Crazy Heart (2009)

Rock-bottom: Alcohol-dependent country singer Thomas Cobb (Jeff Bridges) has begun to put his life in order, and has made such inroads that his girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) trusts him to babysit her son. A quick stop at a bar later, and the kid has gone missing.

The movies often portray dependency as either a steady climb or a steep fall, ignoring the peaks and valleys involved in any recovery. It’s not unusual that things might be looking up for someone in the lead-up to a relapse — as with Jeff Bridges’ character here. Fortunately, the child is recovered, and, while Cobb’s girlfriend makes the very reasonable decision to break up with him, the moment becomes a wake-up call that leads him toward a more lasting recovery.

Where to stream: Disney+

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Rock-bottom: As relayed to Julia Roberts’ character, Richard (Richard Jenkins) describes the moment when he very nearly ran over his son in his driveway.

Eat Pray Love is, of course, Liz Gilbert’s story. She’s lost and disillusioned at the story’s outset, but hers isn’t the rock bottom moment on which the film turns. That belongs to the man she meets at an Indian ashram, and who becomes something of a guide on her spiritual journey. Having destroyed his family through substance dependency and his own poor choices, Richard eventually finds a measure of peace that he’s able to pass along to her.

Where to stream: Binge

Trainspotting (1996)

Rock-bottom: Oh, lord, good luck picking just one. But it’s probably the toilet-diving fantasia that Ewan MacGregor’s Rent Boy experiences when he accidentally doses himself with a couple of opium suppositories.

Mark Renton isn’t anyone’s heroic ideal, but he does undertake a series of incredibly challenging efforts to move past heroin addiction, followed by similarly difficult attempts to find meaning after addiction. That last bit involves cutting loose of some troubled former friends, and stealing a pile of drug money, but the sequel suggests that Mark was largely successful, even if his excessive lust for life will always complicate matters.

Where to stream: Binge

The Karate Kid (1984)

Rock-bottom: Following a satisfying but ill-advised attempt to get back at his bullies, Daniel LaRusso takes a brutal beating from Johnny Lawrence and company.

Thanks to Cobra Kai, we know that things work out pretty well for Ralph Macchio’s Karate Kid character — perhaps his growth into a slightly smarmy car salesman isn’t representative of the traditional hero’s journey, but it also puts him a long way from the past-its-prime South Seas apartments in Reseda. The ‘80s were all about martial arts and action montages, so his journey from dweeb to All-Valley champion is, perhaps, not easy to emulate, but there’s definitely something to be said for finding a Mr. Miyagi to believe in you — someone who’ll fight for your honour and, generally, help you be the best around.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Black Panther (2018)

Rock-bottom: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), left confused and questioning his family dynasty following revelations about his father, is defeated and nearly killed by Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka.

Saved from death by a union of allies and (sometime) enemies, T’Challa comes to realise that he doesn’t have to follow either the path of concealment laid out by his father, nor the one of limitless conflict that his cousin has pursued. With a commitment to making amends for some of the wrongs of his nation and ancestors, Black Panther commits to an entirely new course for Wakanda.

Where to stream: Disney+

A Star is Born (1954)

Rock-bottom: Judy Garland’s Vicki Lester is making her Oscar acceptance speech when her struggling, unemployed husband (James Mason) shows up.

Though the melodrama only gets more tragic from the moment during which Mason’s Norman Maine makes (what ought to be) his wife’s proudest moment all about his own disappointments, the film ends on a positive note: an acknowledgment that life and work will go on for Vicki Lester, and the understanding that her husband’s sad fate wasn’t her failure. (See also: Bradley Cooper’s disastrous awards show appearance in the 2018 remake.)

Where to stream: Netflix

Creed II (2018)

Rock-bottom: Michael B. Jordan’s Donnie Creed, who seems to have everything going for him, is badly beaten by rival Viktor Drago.

Boxing movies (certainly the Rocky-related movies) often have similar trajectories: the lead character takes a big loss and has to fight their way back from the brink in order to win back some self respect, if not the final fight. Boxing sequels tend up that ante further, giving our heroes a much higher fall — Creed II, which begins with Donnie as a global celebrity, is a particularly good example of the form. Hie ultimate success comes when he finds balance in his own life, and his opponents (Viktor and his coach Ivan Drago) find balance in theirs, as well.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Just Mercy (2019)

Rock-bottom: Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

McMillian’s wrongful 1988 conviction for the murder of Ronda Morrison, a white woman, was through no shortcomings of his own, but instead the result of deliberate failings of an Alabama justice system that was eager to convict a Black man despite virtually nonexistent evidence. As in the real-life story, idealistic Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) lent his time, education, and credibility toward correcting the injustice. The hard message being that, just as we’re often not the architects of our own fates, the power to change our circumstances is similarly limited. All the more reason to offer a hand when we can.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Bridesmaids (2011)

Rock-bottom: At the climax of a cycle of self-destruction, Annie (Kristen Wiig) destroys the decorations at her lifelong best friend’s bridal shower, the last straw that gets her booted from the event and the wedding itself.

Having lost her business and her relationship, Annie’s spiral begins when she’s invited to her best friend’s extravagant wedding. Embarrassment over her circumstances and jealousy of her friend’s success reshapes her into a wrecking ball, destroying everything she touches and further alienating her loved ones. It takes a little tough love (and wrestling) from Melissa McCarthy’s character before Annie begins to see the importance of making amends, in the process learning that she’s not the only one with problems.

Where to stream: Stan

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13 Movies About Climbing Back From Rock Bottom