'American Relapse': Film Review

Courtesy of Pat McGee Pictures
And you thought the opioid crisis couldn't get more upsetting.
3/29/2019

Adam Linkenhelt and Pat McGee's doc looks at how for-profit rehab centers create a job opportunity for "junkie hunters."

A feature-length version of a Viceland docuseries, Dopesick Nation, that aired last year, Adam Linkenhelt and Pat McGee's American Relapse views an obscenely lucrative drug-rehab industry through the eyes of two people trying to do good while making a buck. Recovering addicts Frank Holmes and Allie Severino cruise the streets of Florida's Delray Beach, the "recovery capital of America," trying to get drug users to enter detox while dealing with roadblocks caused by both our health care system and the biology of addiction. Lacking in some respects but an eye-opener for those who've never dealt with this world, the doc is more involving thanks to its narrow scope, even if that tight focus leaves us with unanswered questions.

Acquaintances who do their jobs independently (and only occasionally appear together here), Allie and Frank are "deeply embedded" in the drug world thanks to their personal histories. The 27-year-old Allie has been sober since 18, and has the put-together air of someone who's ever-vigilant about the possibility of relapse; Frank first tried heroin at 16, and his more muscle-through-it approach is exemplified by the name of a project he launched with his long-suffering mother, Lesha, the "Fuck Heroin Foundation."

It takes some explaining before we understand why Delray is such a hotbed of rehab. With liberal, ironic use of vintage educational films and "gold rush" metaphors, the directors explain that Florida's lax laws mean little oversight of businesses in the rehab field and few consequences when they cut corners. When the Affordable Care Act required insurers to pay for substance abuse treatment, so many facilities sprung up here that they couldn't fill their beds by themselves; enter the "junkie hunters," independent agents who were paid commissions for bringing patients to rehab facilities — up to $2,000 a person.

The extraordinarily high rate of relapse among opiate addicts (the film and its press kit seem to disagree on the exact number, claiming either 80 or 90 percent) creates what the documentary calls a "cycle of recovery": Addicts enter detox, are released to partial hospitalization, proceed to intensive outpatient care and, lastly, move into a "sober home," which may not be nearly as safe a space as it sounds. By this point or soon after, a patient may well find himself in the market for detox again — and the junkie hunter may stand to earn another commission on the same person. (Tragically, any place with this many detox centers will also attract the drug dealers needed to supply patients who fall off the wagon.)

The doc acknowledges that there are well-intentioned people and institutions at all points in this cycle. But while it takes pains to set Frank and Allie apart from their more exploitative peers — we watch as they struggle to find help for those whose lack of insurance coverage means there's no bounty to be earned — it doesn't provide a broad enough look at how they earn a living for us to be as confident as the film is about the distinction. Are they like unscrupulous lawyers who soothe their consciences with a bit of pro bono work? Or are they closer to mission-driven volunteers who accept payment when it's available? Linkenhelt and McGee avoid interviewing journalists or scholars (in keeping with Vice's often dubious "we'll figure this out for ourselves!" approach), but disinterested voices would be very helpful here.

Spending only a single weekend with these two means we can observe the nitty-gritty of individual cases. We meet addicts at varying degrees of eagerness to get clean, and get startling looks at what addiction has forced them to endure. As the title suggests, the doc has many ways (sometimes surprising ones) to show how precarious recovery can be.

Given that there are so many ways an addict can be triggered to use again, one wonders if the film's title sequence isn't problematic: Its dreamy music and stylized images of drug injection will likely feel pretty sexy to some viewers. Whatever its shortcomings, American Relapse deepens our sense of the catastrophe caused by opioid overprescription and over-availability. Arriving in the wake of a much-ballyhooed settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the Sackler family's Purdue Pharma, it suggests that such agreements hardly begin to hold accountable the people and companies who have gotten rich on the suffering of those around them.

Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Directors: Adam Linkenhelt, Pat McGee
Producers: Devon Collins, Terry Hahin, Dennis Hill, Adam Linkenhelt
Executive producers: Ian Manheimer, Jaime Manheimer, Pat McGee, Stacy McPeak
Director of photography: Michael Goodman
Composer: Dennis Hill

105 minutes