In the last decade or so, opioid addiction has skyrocketed in the U.S. Too many Americans are dulling pain with prescription narcotic painkillers, and then, finding refills harder to come by and needing to feed overwhelming cravings, turning to cheaper, more accessible heroin. Overdoses from opioids have claimed thousands of lives, with most of those deaths coming from prescription drugs, not heroin. In fact, every day, 44 people die from an overdose from a prescribed painkiller, reports the Centers for Disease Control.
Two new film documentaries take very different approaches to portraying the magnitude of the problem, its various causes and the complex hurdles toward slowing and stopping both addiction and fatalities related to these drugs.
The less successful of the two documentaries is “An American Epidemic,” (102 minutes) directed by and starring Mike DeLeon, a dead ringer for New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In spite of this visual distraction, the film does successfully argue that opioid and heroin addiction have turned into a full-blown epidemic across the country. Starting in the slums of Paterson, New Jersey, DeLeon then expands the film’s scope to include the country at large, showing well-groomed, articulate middle-class kids, adults and parents battling opiate addiction. The documentary asks how the problem arose, expressing sympathy for doctors who prescribe legal drugs out of a hope of relieving their patients’ suffering, while vilifying an overmedicated culture and pharmaceutical companies that market directly to consumers. Pharma ads for opioids, the film says, are meant to teach patients exactly which symptoms to present with to a doctor so they can get a prescription filled.
“An American Epidemic” shows a terrifying, heartbreaking series of interviews with the parents of addicts, some of whom have lost a child to an overdose. While many parents watching may judge from the perch of “that would never happen to my kid,” Lynell Cox of Hand Delivered Hope, in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, lays out just one too-common path of addiction when she describes a theoretical case: A high schooler who gets a prescription painkiller after hurting her leg playing soccer. Before long, the girl is waking every morning trying to figure out how to score more Oxycontin pills. DeLeon’s film is most successful when discussing how addiction can lurk within a family, waiting to come out and rip it apart. One powerful moment is early in the film when Chris Stegner of NKY Hates Heroin, an activist organization in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, says, “You know a heroin addict. You just don’t know you know one yet.”
Ultimately, though, the documentary is a dizzying series of interviews that make it hard for the viewer to track. DeLeon’s film argues its points well, through that wide array of talking heads, but better editing and a stronger emphasis on the emotional pull of the crisis would have made “An American Epidemic” a more compelling documentary.
“The Hungry Heart” (93 minutes) is a far more successful and heart-wrenching documentary, showing the scope of opioid addiction through the lens of the sleepy hamlet of St. Albans, Vermont, a tiny town near the Canadian border. Director Bess O’Brien’s film revolves around Fred Holmes, MD, an avuncular pediatrician who notices the explosion of prescription painkiller addiction in his town and starts to treat it with a combination of rabbinical empathy and prescriptions for Suboxone, a drug that reduces opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Dr. Holmes’ empathy for his addicted patients is profound; the film is a loving depiction of his care (physical and emotional) of his patients. As viewers, we’re moved to hear him praise them for the steps they take toward sustained recovery.
Yet Holmes also recognizes his limitations. Financial problems, employment and a lack of education — all contributors to the rising rates of opioid addiction and overdose — are well beyond his control. Plus, his patients must go to treatment to overcome their addiction; for some, the grind of commuting to counseling or even outpatient rehab, on top of looking for work, becomes simply too taxing, and they relapse. One of Holmes’ patients lands back in jail; another is homeless by the end of the film. And for some, Suboxone simply becomes their new drug of choice, as they grind it up to snort it or take it intravenously.
“The Hungry Heart” follows several patients, including a teenager who sells his family’s farm tools and copper wire for money for drugs; young parents Holmes is forced to turn in to child protective services; and two middle-aged women who lose everything when they become addicted to prescription painkillers. The film depicts the road to recovery as profoundly difficult in no uncertain terms, making Holmes’ daily efforts to save his neighbors both miraculous and Sisyphean.
Like the best literature and the scariest movies, “The Hungry Heart” makes St. Albans a stand-in for any town in which an insidious scourge can take root. Holmes is the hero, trying, perhaps in vain, to stop the spread of contagion. The documentary draws us in to the quotidian routines of its subjects to offer a personal, relatable take on how addiction actually happens, over and over and over again. It leaves the viewer in a mix of grief and despair, but also some hope.
“An American Epidemic“ and “The Hungry Heart“ were not in theatrical release at press time, but both films are available for purchase at their respective websites. The directors are also available for more information, including local screenings, training and speaking.