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Elizabeth Banks Says Cocaine Bear Will Explore Some Serious Themes

When you name your movie "Cocaine Bear," you're probably not expecting Oscar nods or high literary analysis. The upcoming black comedy from director Elizabeth Banks features an ensemble cast that includes Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., O'Shea Jackson Jr., and the late, great Ray Liotta, among others. And from the looks of the trailers, they're all cranking the absurdity up to 11.

Though the title and premise might sound completely ridiculous, "Cocaine Bear" is actually inspired by a true story. In 1985, drug smuggler Andrew Thornton dropped a significant amount of the narcotic out of his airplane over the Georgia-Tennessee border (per The New York Times). The dead body of a 175-pound American black bear was later found with at least three or four grams of cocaine in its bloodstream. Supposedly, the poor animal happened upon the dumped cocaine, ingested it, and was killed from overdose effects.

Fortunately, that real-life story didn't involve the bear going on a murderous, coke-fueled rampage. In the movie, that's exactly what happens. While Banks' film takes inspiration from the bizarre true story of Thornton's drug dump, it ups the ridiculous factor by orders of magnitude. And yet, according to the director herself, there are still some more serious themes in "Cocaine Bear" that go beyond simple silly spectacle.

Cocaine Bear is a story about family

In an interview with Total Film, Elizabeth Banks discussed both the absurdity of "Cocaine Bear" and the more serious themes that brought her to the project. One of those that particularly attracted her was the theme of family — particularly the relationships between parents and their children. "One of the surprising themes of the film is parenting," Banks said. "The film is very much about fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, and protecting your cubs. That's one of the things that drew me to it as a mom, this story of how to be the best version of a parent."

Given what's been revealed about the actual story of "Cocaine Bear," that thematic throughline makes a lot of sense. Keri Russell's Colette Matthews character says in the trailer that she's in the woods looking for her daughter, played by Brooklynn Prince. And with Banks' mention of fathers and sons, it seems likely that some of the other human characters will be related as well.

Cocaine Bear deals with some heavy political themes

In addition to the theme of parenthood that first drew Elizabeth Banks to "Cocaine Bear," the film also deals with some more political themes relevant to both its mid-1980s setting and the present day.

"The other [theme] is the sense that the war on drugs was really ramped up in the '80s," Banks told Total Film. "This film takes place in 1985, which is the height of all these [programs] to combat crack in America. So many of those policies went sideways, and this bear was collateral damage." Though "war on drugs" rhetoric began well before 1985, the era of Ronald Reagan's presidency did see an uptick in political focus on the issue (per The Washington Post). The wide-reaching anti-drug policies of the era are believed by many to have caused far more harm than good, treating addiction as a crime issue rather than a healthcare issue and disproportionally targeting communities of color in America (per NPR). Many of these policies remain active in various forms today.

For Banks, "Cocaine Bear" is also a film about how humans relate to the environment. "We, as humans, with our hubris, feel that we can control nature," the director told Total Film. "[But] if you f*** with nature, nature will f*** with you." The subject of humanity's impact on the natural world is more relevant now than ever as the modern climate crisis continues (per National Geographic).

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The movie can still be enjoyed as just a silly distraction

While "Cocaine Bear" is clearly a film with many layers, its director says that it can still be enjoyed as a simple, silly distraction if that's what viewers are looking for. "Cocaine Bear is super-entertaining," Elizabeth Banks told Total Film. "If you want to let go of everything in your life for 95 minutes, this is a great way to do that. It's an incredible adventure." While she emphasized that there are some "really beautiful messages" in the movie, the absurdity inherent to the title still seems to be the main draw.

Of course, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. Plenty of recent comedy series like "Fleabag" and "PEN15" have gained widespread acclaim by blending ridiculous circumstances with smart and powerful writing. If everything comes together in "Cocaine Bear," it could be a film in that same tradition. Or at the very least, as Banks told Total Film, "If audiences want to see a movie called 'Cocaine Bear,' I have delivered a film that lives up to the title."