Oxyana: Tribeca Review
Tribeca Film Festival, Documentary Competition
Doc filmmaker Sean Dunne leaps from shorts to features with a stunning look at addiction in Appalachia.
NEW YORK — A once-thriving mining town delivers its own eulogy in Sean Dunne's Oxyana, a doc about rural drug addiction in which a generation of addicts describes the almost unbelievable damage drugs have done to their community. Though the subject isn't completely new, the film's patient, empathetic approach and top-notch production offer something conventional journalism typically doesn't; the result is an important film that deserves to be seen in arthouses.
The drugs in question aren't heroin or meth or (come on, now) pot, but legal prescription pills -- Oxycontin and related painkillers whose fierce addictiveness overtook the town. In a span of just twelve or fifteen years, locals say, Oceana, West Virginia transformed from an archetypal mountain community to a place where teenagers turn tricks for drugs and a 23 year-old can report that half his graduating class has died of an overdose.
West Virginia has the highest rate of prescription overdoses in the country; a doctor at Raleigh General Hospital says they see a death by OD every day -- a statistic that doesn't even count those who are dead at home by the time an EMS team arrives.
Voices of doctors, parents, and saddened onlookers provide important context, but the film's core is its long interviews with users themselves -- who display varying levels of self-awareness, though almost all would seemingly love to be rid of their addiction. One girl recalls winning $12,000 in the lottery and spending it in a week; at $40 to $50 a pill, it's easy to understand how prostitution became so commonplace that hepatitis is rampant here.
Though interviewees may begin their discussions of the epidemic with flippant explanations that "there's nothing to do" in this town of 1,200, and "you've gotta make your own party," Dunne pretty quickly gets beyond feigned nonchalance -- returning repeatedly to key interviewees throughout the film, deepening their stories: The man we meet as a dealer, for instance, who knows doctors who'll write prescriptions for hundreds of pills for a $1,000-per-visit fee, turns out to have a horrific tale of family loss tied to the very drugs he's selling. The walrus-sized Juggalo, a self-described "mean son-of-a-bitch" some days, turns out to be the son of the smart, thoughtful woman who starts the film recalling how this once was "a wonderful place to raise children."
Some subjects are immediately sympathetic, but others -- that mean son-of-a-bitch, for instance, or the pregnant young women who are barely more suitable for motherhood than they are for aerospace engineering -- present a test of the viewer's humanity. Can an urban, upper-middle-class arthouse patron listen to these people speak without dismissing them as "white trash" and becoming incapable of empathy? One interviewee assumes the answer is no: "Nobody's gonna care -- they think we're inbred pieces of shit."
But Sean Dunne doesn't think so. His superbly put-together film, with excellent photography by Hillary Spera and on-target music by Jonny Fritz and John McCauley, is artistically polished enough to get viewers' attention without being so pretty it aestheticizes the pain this community has endured. Offering no narration or titles, it lets these young men and women speak and leaves us to hear them without judging. It behaves as if we can be trusted with that job, which is a lot to assume. But the alternative is to treat this community like an actuarial database or as fodder for sensationalism. Anyone who encounters Oceana through Oxyana should realize how inhuman that would be.
Production Company: Cadillac Hash LLC
Director: Sean Dunne
Producers: Nadine Brown, Cass Greener
Executive producers: Colby Glenn, Norma Jean Grissom, Gerard Falcone, Sarah Falcone, Patrick Daly
Director of photography: Hillary Spera
Music: Jonny Fritz, John McCauley
Editor: Kathy Gatto
No rating, 82 minutes