Tribeca 2013: ‘Oxyana’ has much misery to document, but little new to say about it

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Oxyana
USA, 2013
Directed by Sean Dunne

The abuse of prescription drugs, particularly Oxycontin and related medications, has reached epidemic status in many rural American communities, but nowhere is it worse than the Oceana section of West Virginia, nicknamed “Oxyana” by the residents. Oceana’s levels of drug abuse are so high that at one point during Sean Dunne’s new documentary Oxyana, a doctor claims that an entire generation of residents has become lost – even those who do not die may never have a valuable contribution to society. Oxyana mourns for that generation, but at the same time it has very little to say beyond documenting the existence of the epidemic.

The film is composed almost entirely of interviews with Oceana residents, and the problem with that is very simple: they aren’t able to describe the problem on anything bigger than a personal level. The refrain that is returned to again and again is that “it’s everywhere,” but there’s almost no explanation as to how and why it’s everywhere. A local drug dealer describes the process of obtaining prescriptions from a crooked doctor in Washington D.C., but it’s hard to believe that crooked or easily duped doctors can be the source of enough drugs to cause a lost generation in an entire region.

What is left, then, is simply the addicts themselves. Oxyana does not turn the camera away when the hard-core users get their fixes, which is to its credit. There’s something deeply uncomfortable about watching an IV drug user shoot up, Dunne knows it, and he is not afraid to use the audience’s discomfort to his advantage. The audience should feel uncomfortable, he is asserting, because this is what happens when an Oceana resident has the same amount of money that was paid to see this film.

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The most heartbreaking stories in Oxyana, as one might expect, are those coming from people who are deeply in denial. The single-mother addict who says that she’s not like everyone else, that she really needs the drug for her pain; the overweight, undereducated wife who threatened to kill herself if her addict husband did not get her hooked as well; the hard-core user whose family was torn apart by the drugs and has stopped caring about having a family of his own. Dunne is making this film as a cry for help from Oceana to the rest of the country, and it is the most desperate stories which sell his message most powerfully.

It makes audiences do more than just understand the effects of using prescription drugs in excess.

It would be easy to look down on some of the subjects of this film: the visibly pregnant woman who is smoking like a chimney, perhaps, or the mother who does not want to “limitate” her child, or the man whose country accent is so thick that the only discernible word he speaks is “Juggalo.” But Dunne understands that no matter how poor or uneducated a person might be, he or she deserves a better life than the one which is promised by becoming a slave to the 30mg pill. Oxyana may be repetitive and unoriginal in how it delivers that message, but it’s an important message to have nonetheless.

-Mark Young
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 17-28. Visit the official website for more information.

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