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‘Cherry’: Marvel directors, star tell a powerful real-life story of love and addiction

Tom “Spider-Man” Holland shows his range as a scarred Iraq vet leading a harrowing life with moments of wonder and hope.

Emily (Ciara Bravo) sticks by her husband (Tom Holland) even as he becomes a drug addict in “Cherry.”
Apple Original Films

Harsh times and heartbreak abound in the Russo brothers’ gritty addiction epic “Cherry,” but there’s poetry in the language of the script and in certain moments of wonder and hope, of dark comedy, of love and redemption.

  • Early on, we get the sense Tom Holland’s Cherry is … an unusual guy, with a Holden Caulfield-esque way of looking at the world. “I grew up around here,” he says as he walks his Cleveland neighborhood. “The trees are nice. I don’t understand them but I like them. I think I like them all. It would have to be a pretty f---ed up tree for me not to like it.”
  • When Cherry meets a woman on a local university campus, they talk about inconsequential matters — she likes his sweater, their English class sucks — but it’s as if everything around them is slightly blurry and they’re the only two people on that campus and in this world, and anyone who has ever felt that youthful rush of meeting someone and being almost totally COMPLETELY sure you’re going to fall in love will recognize and relate to this moment.
  • In a wordless sequence late in the film and we’ll say no more about it, the music by Henry Jackman swells and soars as we see someone going through certain paces that will either break this person or reset their soul and give them one last shot. It’s beautiful stuff.

Anthony and Joseph Russo have achieved mega-success with four films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including “Avengers: Endgame,” but they return to their home town of Cleveland to tell a much more intimate, real-world story. “Cherry” is adapted from the autobiographical novel of Nico Walker, who came home from the war in Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD, became addicted to drugs and funded his habit with 10 bank robberies in and around Cleveland before he was caught and given an 11-year prison sentence. (The bidding war for the rights to Walker’s book reportedly took place in increments, as Walker’s phone privileges from federal prison were limited.)

Tom Holland is the best Peter Parker/Spider-Man to ever grace the big screen, but he shifts into a whole other and enormously impressive gear as Cherry, who serves as the narrator for the story, which is broken into seven chapters with titles such as “BASIC” (for basic training), “CHERRY” (when you kill someone in action for the first time, you lose your cherry), “HOME” and “DOPE LIFE.” The visual tone varies from sequence to sequence, with the works of Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino as clear influences.

After a prologue hinting at the troubles to come, we see the beginnings of romance between Cherry and Emily (Ciara Bravo in a devastatingly effective performance). Like Cherry, she’s a whip-smart, funny, good heart who’s a bit tightly wound, a bit intense at times. Out of nowhere, perhaps because things are too good to be true and Emily isn’t used to that, she announces she’s leaving Cleveland to go to school in Montreal, and they might as well break up because they’ll be living in different countries.

Cherry is destroyed. On a mad impulse, he joins the Army — only for Emily to come back to him and say she’s made a mistake. They get married at the local courthouse, but it’s only a matter of days before Cherry has to ship off to basic training, where he becomes a medic and is deployed to Iraq, where the s--- is hitting the fan on a daily basis. The basic training sequences with the maniacal drill sergeants are reminiscent of “Full Metal Jacket,” while the war scenes are effective but nothing we haven’t seen before. (Sly and wickedly funny small touches are sprinkled throughout. Authority figures are given names such as Sgt. Whomever and Dr. Whomever and Father Whomever, and when Cherry returns home to a hero’s welcome in a school gymnasium, “Disco Inferno” blares on the sound system and Cherry breaks the fourth wall to tell us he doesn’t deserve the medal he’s receiving.)

The movie is at its most compelling in the scenes after Cherry has returned home, clearly struggling with PTSD and abusing opioids, coke and eventually heroin to self-medicate. Emily quickly transitions from enabler to fellow addict; we want to scream at her to run for her life, but she loves Cherry with everything she has and now she loves getting high as much as he does, and the train is flying off the rails.

In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, Emily overdoses and is fighting for her life when her mother (Presciliana Esparolini) says to Cherry in a measured tone: “I know you’re broken, but please don’t break my daughter. If you love her, then you’ll be a man and walk away. You get up and walk away or I’ll f--- you up.” Sadly, it seems that even if Cherry does walk away, Emily will follow, even as he begins robbing banks to pay off his debt to a menacing drug kingpin known only as Black (Daniel R. Hill), even as he stops caring whether he’s caught and in fact seems hell-bent on getting caught.

“Cherry” is at times almost overwhelming in its raw and real depiction of addiction and how it can destroy lives, but also chill-inducing with its promise of a possible lasting light at the end of the tunnel.