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by Jay Seaver

"Almost hell, West Virginia..."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: Addiction to prescription medication is hardly limited to rural America, but it thrives there. The reasons why communities like Oceana, West Viginia have such a serious problem with painkillers like Oxycontin are far from the first concern of this movie, which concerns itself almost entirely with showing the effects, becoming a tragic study in human frailty.

Director Sean Dunne builds the film almost entirely out of interviews with local residents; some are functioning addicts, some are dealers, some are relatives who have tried to get their loved ones into rehab but to no avail. There's a man suffering from cancer and the wife who is determined to go down with him. Young men who left for a little while after graduating from high school who came back to find their friends dying at an astonishing rate, and a dentist shocked at his patients' prescription requests. There's a couple of scenes with the district attorney and other officials, but not many; this isn't a story about enforcement.

They're country folks, in general, plain-spoken and not particularly prone to seeking anyone's pity. They spell out the reasons why they think drug abuse has become so endemic in towns like Oceana both as a trend and for themselves personally, and that they can communicate this clearly is somewhat unusual for movies about addiction: There's no metaphor to it, just a simple description of how each feels on and off oxy that makes it more easy than usual for the viewer to put themselves in their positions. Though the idea of "Appalachian Fatalism" is brought up, this tendency to think it's impossible to win brought on by (among other things) decades of exploitation by the coal industry never feels like the end of their arguments; there's a sad willingness to accept responsibility.

Certain things come up from multiple sources, it's impressive how well Dunne and editor Kathy Gatto cut the movie to reinforce these facts without driving them into the ground. There's a big difference between facts and story, and the filmmakers managed to find a series of stories that feel unique to the individual telling them that all arise from overlapping circumstances, even if there isn't much crossover between the various subjects' narratives. At times, it could perhaps use a little outsider perspective - the filmmakers were able to make points in the post-film Q&A session that the folks on the ground perhaps couldn't see - but as the locals' view, it does all right.

One point that comes up occasionally is the community's relative isolation - a drive of forty-five minutes to the nearest movie theater or bowling alley is cited a few times. It's beautiful country, though, something that Dunne and cinematographer Hillary Spera capture nicely, punctuating their tales of woe with sharp, clear landscapes that are photographers' dreams. That also plays into how they portray Oceana as a setting, generally as looking like a small town that has seen better days but still has a quaint charm as opposed to someplace that looks run-down and crime-ridden. There's not many scenes portraying the locals as trash with a lot of junk on the lawn, either; the idea seems to be that even nice places can be hollowed out and bled dry, not just ignorant hicks.

That's a good thing, as this sort of issue can be invisible outside these isolated communities, and as such easy to dismiss. "Oxyana" puts relatable faces on the problem without appearing to skew it too badly, and that's the kind of visibility these folks need.

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originally posted: 05/07/13 11:36:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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