(2017) Documentary (HBO) Kathy Kelly, Stephany Gay, Britt Doyle, Preston Doyle, Britt Doyle Jr., Harry Doyle, Gail Cole, Brian Cole, David Cayce, Judy Cayce Enseki. Directed by Perri Peltz
We are told that the current opioid crisis is the worst drug addiction crisis in American history. Even as the debate for stricter gun control rages in the forefront of the American consciousness, the opioid crisis remains in the background despite the fact that it is responsible for more American deaths than are taken by guns.
This HBO documentary tries to take the epidemic out of the background and bring it into the light of day. It presents four families directly affected by the opioid epidemic in an attempt to put a human face on drug addiction. It begins by showing cell phone footage of addicts keeling over, barely conscious; of paramedics trying to revive them. In one heartbreaking moment, a mother is collapsed in the toy aisle of a grocery store while her toddler wails disconsolately beside her. Then, we cut to a Purdue Pharmaceutical advertisement from the 1990s in which Dr. Alan Spanos blithely advises doctors that opioids such as Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin were perfectly safe to prescribe for chronic pain patients and that the addictive properties of those drugs had been overstated.
Of course, we all know that’s hogwash and what’s more, we know that Purdue knew that it was a lie. They were fined millions of dollars for their misdirection but the damage was done; the company made billions of dollars as the rate of prescriptions went up 800 times what it had been before the ads and even today doctors continue to prescribe these very seriously addicting drugs for nearly every medical – and even dental – procedure. Many patients were never really informed as to just how dangerous these drugs could be.
Stephany Gay had issues with kidney stones as a teen and was given OxyContin and Vicodin for the pain. She began to get addicted to the feeling of well-being that the drugs gave her and she began to take them well above the recommended dosage. Her sister Ashley began experimenting with the pills but when it proved to be a more expensive habit than they could afford they switched to heroin. At first they were snorting it and both girls swore up and down to their mother Kathy Kelly that they would never use needles but eventually both did and at length Ashley died from an overdose. Stephany weeps in recounting those horrible events but now she has a daughter and is clean. Then we are informed that she relapsed six weeks after those interviews were filmed.
The Britt Doyle talks about his wife who was prescribed opioids following a C-section and turned from being a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing woman to a shell of her former self. Her young sons would find her dead after an overdose. Gail and Brian Cole visit their son’s grave; he was prescribed drugs following the removal of a cyst and became addicted and yes, died.
These are all white, middle class and upper class American families being affected; studies show that poorer class Americans aren’t prescribed opioids nearly as often mainly because the drugs are so expensive. Still in all these are stories of dealing with grief as well as dealing with drug abuse and they are emotionally powerful to be sure. But there is almost no context here and we are left to wonder why without any answers forthcoming do doctors continue to prescribe these drugs so commonly despite knowing the damage they are doing – more than 180,000 Americans have died between 2000 and 2016 due to the aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioid painkillers.
The sense is given that there are few resources available for prescription painkiller abusers, although Stephany entered a state-sponsored rehab program following her relapse, although she walked away from it four days after checking in. We may know anecdotally that heroin is a nearly impossible habit to break but we aren’t told why and that’s a question that Peltz doesn’t ask during the just under one hour documentary.
There really isn’t a lot of media coverage of the opioid epidemic and documentaries like this should be applauded for even being on the front lines of the issue but they also should be encouraged to dig deeper and this one simply doesn’t. Peltz seems to be content with displaying the grief of the families that survived the victims rather than explaining how the medical environment changed that allowed these tragedies to happen, nor does she talk about those who are beginning to take on Big Pharma to hold them accountable for the deaths that continue to climb. From watching this, you get the sense that this is a problem for which nothing is being done and that’s far from the case.
REASONS TO GO: The stories of the families depicted are indeed heart-wrenching. The movie puts a human face on the opioid epidemic. The story has gotten little coverage except in generalizations; more documentaries like this are needed.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary feels incomplete with little context. It’s somewhat “Documentary 101” in form.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, depictions of drug overdoses, references to prescription drug abuse and other adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deaths from opioid overdose now exceed gun violence and car accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Make Money Selling Drugs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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