Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Oxycodone - sold under the brandname OxyContin - is an opiod (like an opiate but partially synthetic), prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain. I'm telling you this because it is just one of many stage-setting facts that is irritatingly absent from Sean Dunne's debut documentary, which while impressively intimate is a long way from thorough.

His film - which won the best new documentary director award at Tribeca Film Festival - focuses on the 1,400-strong population of Oceana in West Virginia. It is, we are led to believe, a typical example of what happens in America when over-prescribing is allowed to run to its natural conclusion. The town - once known for its mining but now on the slide - has acquired the nickname Oxyana because of the high proportion of drug addiction which one of the many contributors to the film says has "taken a generation". Another remarks, chillingly: "If it wasn't for the drugs, there wouldn't be a town".

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Dunne has worked hard to create a rapport with the many residents who share their stories of drug dependency with him, from those who have lost more friends than they care to recall to people who have moved on from taking the drug orally to snorting it as part of a cocktail or shooting it into their system. The resultant interviews are strikingly candid and quietly horrifying, showing how a combination of poverty, low expectations and, though it is not directly spelt out, poor education can lead people to seek escape through drugs.

The problem is that this is really as far as Dunne takes things. Although he talks to a local dentist about the prescription issue there is no real attempt to dig deeper as to how doctors are able to prescribe outrageous amounts of the drugs without being stopped. There is also very little discussion concerning what the legal system or local government are doing to combat the problem and no attempt at all to take the story up with politicians - or the makers of OxyContin - to ask what could be done. A dig about on the internet, incidentally, which I felt was utterly necessary in an attempt to fill in the gaps left by this film, shows that, in fact, quite a bit is being done to stop people from abusing the drug - such as having it turn to gel when crushed in a bid to stop it being snorted.

In addition to a lack of proper set up concerning the use of the drugs, there is also a suggestion late in the film, that addicts may now be being subscribed some sort of 'methadone' type equivalent. There is no proper exploration of this, however - and barely any time to even see the name of the product - begging questions regarding the rate of recidivism and, indeed, whether this substitution is helping to tackle the problem successfully or not.

While Dunne certainly succeeds in shining a sympathetic light on those who are in the grip of addiction, he seems happy to leave the root causes and possible solutions in the dark.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2013
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Exploration of a small Appalachian town in the grip of drug addiction.

Director: Sean Dunne

Year: 2012

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2013

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