Social Work

The 7 Best Biographical Movies About Substance Abuse Disorder

The 7 Best Biographical Movies About Substance Abuse Disorder
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert August 2, 2019

Seven true stories about incarceration, intervention, and recovery. While not exactly popcorn movies, they are instructive must-sees for aspiring substance abuse social workers.

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Interested in becoming a substance abuse social worker? Substance use disorder is a chronic and recurring disease, recognized by the Federal Disabilities Act of 1973. Once substance use disorder hijacks the brain, it can be difficult to break free; it’s a social work specialization in need of noble and committed practitioners.

There’s no shortage of stories about the tragic impact of substance use disorder; many of which have been committed to film. The seven biographical films on this list highlight many facets of this disease—from the chaos of the cycle of destructive and bizarre behavior to the frequently unsuccessful attempts to quit.

Prospective social workers will see how substance use disorder haunts users as it asserts its control over them. The real-life individuals in these films meet fates common to users: incarceration, untimely death, and, occasionally but too rarely, an intervention that leads to recovery. These are not popcorn movies, but they are engrossing, enlightening, and instructive.

The Basketball Diaries

The Basketball Diaries is a 1995 film depicting one young man’s descent into hard drugs and heroin; the film is adapted from the autobiographical book of the same name by poet and musician Jim Carroll (portrayed in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio).

The Basketball Diaries centers on Carroll, a member of the champion St. Vitus Catholic High School basketball team. Traumatized by the death of a friend, Carroll tries heroin, and soon he is abusing it regularly. The film shows Carroll stealing, prostituting himself, and failing in rehab. Only when he is incarcerated does he overcome his substance use disorder.

Social workers in the field of substance abuse will recognize a familiar pattern: the first-time heroin user who quickly succumbs to the drug, and who ultimately cycles in and out of rehab. Those in the profession know that incarceration is sometimes the only way an individual can become clean.



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Basquiat is a biographical drama based on the life of art world darling Jean-Michel Basquiat. The film captures Basquiat’s humble beginnings as a starving graffiti artist living out of a box in Brooklyn and follows him through his rise as an illustrious painter, living fast in the art world of the 70s and 80s.

Along the way, Basquiat develops a mentoring relationship with Andy Warhol, and through that connection gains entry into a world of glamour and drug use. Basquiat’s sudden rise to fame and success and his new wealth fuel his substance use disorder; he died of a heroin overdose at age 27.

Like many prominent figures, Basquiat struggled with sudden fame, relationships, and his identity; drugs provided him a temporary escape. For social workers, the film reinforces the powerful relationship between environment and substance abuse behavior.

The Betty Ford Story

The Betty Ford Story follows former First Lady Betty Ford’s battle with breast cancer and her abuse of prescription medication and alcohol.

Ford’s public acknowledgment of her cancer—at a time when the illness was typically kept private—is widely credited with raising awareness about breast cancer and focusing public attention on early detection. All the while, however, Ford was abusing opioid analgesics, which she had taken since 1960 to relieve acute pain. With the added pressure of serving as First Lady, Ford began to overuse alcohol as well. Ultimately her family intervened and Ford entered treatment.

Afterward, she bravely shared her substance use disorder story with the public and eventually went on to found the world-renowned Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol dependence treatment. This story—one about recovery and an unlikely protagonist seeking to change how we frame breast cancer and alcoholism—is as powerfully relevant today as it was decades ago.

Ford’s story is particularly resonant today, as opioid abuse reaches unprecedented levels in the United States; it demonstrates how easily a medical prescription for an opioid can lead to substance abuse. The demographic that Ford represents (i.e. middle-aged women) is especially imperilled by this crisis: according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) “from 1999 to 2017, the death rate from drug overdose among women aged 30 to 64 years increased by 260 percent.” Social workers need to shake off old stereotypes of substance use disorder afflicting only the poor and the inner cities.


Gia tells the story of Gia Marie Carangi (portrayed by Angelina Jolie), a young model who moves to New York City to find fame and fortune on the fashion runway. Carangi is quickly signed by a top agent, Wilhelmina Cooper, and shoots to the top of the industry. The two forge a close bond, but when Cooper dies of lung cancer, Carangi’s world spirals. She turns to drugs to cope, first cocaine and later heroin. Carangi eventually breaks free of her substance abuse disorder but not before she contracts AIDS through the shared use of needles. The final segments of the film depict her battle with AIDS and tragic death.

For social workers, Gia is more than a biographical story about drug abuse. It is also a lesbian love story as well as a historical exploration of the abuse of heroin in the 80s and its link to the spread of AIDS. The film depicts the turbulence of the late 70s and early 80s in New York City, a drug-fueled and frightening time as the AIDs epidemic grew. As such it provides important historical context for problems—substance use disorder and AIDS—that continue to perplex society today.

My Name is Bill W

My Name is Bill W tells the true story of William Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson began drinking as an enlisted member of the military during World War I, but his problem did not spiral out of control until he lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. The film shows Wilson’s struggle with alcohol and his breakthrough epiphany for treating his problem: the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

To say that AA was pioneering and transformational is a massive understatement. The 12-step program has been credited with saving countless lives; today AA has over 2 million members in over 180 nations. Social workers will learn from this film the history and practices of AA, which have influenced numerous other treatment programs. For example, the presence of a former alcoholic—often without significant training—on staff at many treatment programs is the result of Bill W’s emphasis on fellowship as an essential component of recovery.


This Ray Charles biopic (starring Jamie Foxx) covers the rhythm and blues legend’s career, with a pronounced focus on his longtime heroin use. Several childhood traumas—the drowning death of his brother, for which Charles blamed himself, and then his sudden blindness at age 7—frame the subsequent events in his life. These include not only his struggles with drugs but also several nervous breakdowns and recurring bouts of depression.

Charles finally overcame his heroin abuse problem in 1965 but did not abstain from substances entirely thereafter (for the remainder of his life, Charles remained a user of both gin and marijuana).

Charles’ story highlights how often mental illness and substance use disorder sit closely on an axis of connection. Noteworthy is that although Ray sought treatment for his heroin abuse and eventually became clean, he continued to use other substances; in the world of substance use treatment, it is not uncommon for a user to transfer one substance to another. Social workers in the substance abuse field are trained to be vigilant toward this phenomenon in working with this population.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is an American crime film chronicling Wall Street greed, sex, decadence, and hard drug use. The film is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who recounts his wild ways and days heading a corrupt financial firm.

Belfort founded the brokerage company Stratton Oakmont—the name was intended to convey stodgy respectability—which quickly grew in size and prominence despite its unethical practices (for example, the firm reaped huge profits from illegal pump-and-dump schemes). Eventually, Belfort caught the attention of the FBI, and he was ultimately convicted of securities fraud and money laundering.

The film highlights a common scenario: a glamorous industry defined by excess that considers drug use both cool and a measure of success and wealth. For those in high-stress, high-profile positions, drugs offer a false sense of confidence, calm and invincibility, which users seek to manage the pressures in their lives.

For social workers, the takeaway is that substance abusers struggle to process their feelings and turn to alcohol or drugs to numb themselves. Using substances to self-medicate, abusers find themselves on a slippery slope towards substance use disorder, as drugs are highly potent and toxic. Social workers must focus on helping users better manage their emotions and relationships if they are to overcome substance use disorder and relapse.

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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