'Take Your Pills': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of SXSW
A lot to swallow.
3/16/2018

Alison Klayman’s latest documentary explores the use of prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall as performance-enhancing drugs.

Chances are, you may already know someone who’s taking prescription stimulants, perhaps under brand names like Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta or any of another dozen labels. Most commonly used to address ADHD symptoms among children and adolescents, these drugs have also developed a reputation among adults as performance-enhancing meds.

While some may cite the opioid crisis currently sweeping the US by way of comparison, abuse of legalized stimulants hasn’t yet reached that scope. However, Alison Klayman’s topical Take Your Pills suggests that there may yet be reasons for concern from both personal and public health standpoints, a perspective that audiences will have a chance to assess for themselves when Netflix releases the film Friday.

Predictably enough, college kids were among those who quickly figured out that a dose of stimulants could facilitate exam cramming and pretty soon those with prescriptions were only too willing to sell a few pills to other students when finals rolled around. These related drugs share commonalities with amphetamines and in fact trace their history back to the introduction of Benzedrine as an over-the-counter decongestant in the 1930s. So, no surprise that your roommate’s Adderall or Ritalin could provide that crucial boost at a critical time. These drugs work by increasing dopamine and adrenaline levels in the central nervous system to stimulate brain function, improving concentration while ameliorating ADHD symptoms as well.

Athletes got the memo too. Former NFL player Eben Britton discovered that Adderall helped him manage the pain associated with on-field injuries, while also improving his focus in training. The ability of these stimulant drugs to improve performance has also attracted the attention of professionals that the film profiles from the software, marketing and financial fields. Users may up their doses if they have prescriptions or obtain drugs illicitly if they don’t, as they attempt to gain an edge over the competition with chemically induced cognitive enhancement.

Experts in the medical and psychological fields seem to view these drugs with a mixture of respect and alarm, recognizing their benefits when appropriately prescribed and their potential for harm when misused. Although there’s legitimate concern about abuse of these drugs, the film mostly skirts the issue of serious dependency or addiction issues that can arise among both ADHD patients and recreational users.

Take Your Pills sometimes struggles to make the case that non-prescription use of these drugs poses serious hazards beyond the already documented adverse effects that ADHD patients may potentially experience, despite offhand comments about the emergence of an “Adderall society.” Discussion about the role of Big Pharma in potentially cultivating and increasing prescription stimulant demand is largely anecdotal, lacking solid documentation. Scant data is presented that would appear to raise concern about the issue to the level of the opiate epidemic or actual methamphetamine trafficking, abuse and addiction.

Although the prescription drug users that Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) profiles have some interesting things to say about how these products affect their performance and perceptions, the steady stream of talking-head experts doesn’t do much to raise the movie’s pulse. Archival footage and animated sequences that augment the interview content don’t move the needle appreciably, either.

Whether the growth of prescription stimulant use emerges as a widespread public health issue may eventually depend on the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry. With public disapproval, brand disparagement and legal action related to the opiate crisis all posing clear risks to marketing potentially addictive drugs, there may already be sufficient disincentives to widespread promotion of these stimulants.

Production company: Motto Pictures
Director: Alison Klayman
Producers: Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, Carolyn Hepburn, Kate Osborn
Executive producers: Maria Shriver, Christina Schwarzenegger, Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Nishimura
Director of photography: Julia C. Liu
Editor: Jen Fineran
Music: Ilan Isakov, Tom Deis
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

86 minutes

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