The miasma of what one interviewee terms “Appalachian fatalism” wafts through Sean Dunne’s Oxyana. A nervy portrait of the effects of economic colonialism and over-prescription of pain meds on the small West Virginia town of Oceana, the documentary—screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival shows these effects relentlessly, especially in the deadened eyes and sagging backs of interview subjects. The epidemic has washed through isolated communities all over America. Years after giant pharmaceutical companies started pushing incredibly addictive pain pills like Oxycontin, doctors eager for a co-pay and underemployed people looking for an easy high make for a hellish combination.
Today Oceana seems filled with Oxycontin addicts. One person after another remembers how things were not so long ago, when everybody just drank and smoked weed on occasion. Now, we learn, mining jobs are increasingly scarce and citizens share increasingly familiar stories of gothic family tragedies. There’s the zoned-out dealer whose father killed his mother and brother, the young women who tell the familiar tales of stealing and hooking to get the money for their fixes, the mother trying to get her son into rehab, and another mother who swears up and down she’s not a junkie, even as her eyes lose focus and speech slurs.
Dunne’s film makes clear the parallels between Oceana and the urban communities shattered by crack in the 1980s. The faces here are white and the drugs made by domestic conglomerates and not grown overseas, and the “war on drugs” seems not to be applied so literally here as elsewhere. We don’t get the sense of an all-out police assault on the users here, as we’ve seen in drug-ravaged black communities around the country.
Oxyana doesn’t draw an explicit comparison between poor white Appalachian pill-takers and poor black crack addicts, and instead maintains a tight bead on just this town and this handful of interviewees. But it’s hard not to note the patterns, the economic abandonment and decimation of social norms in both situations. At various times, Dunne interrupts the flow of interviewees’ misery with bleakly beautiful footage of the town itself, the cheap, collapsing homes and bleak businesses backgrounded by lushly forested mountains. In a different film, this would come across as rural ruin porn. But Dunne’s portrait-like approach is more evocative than elegiac. This has always been a beautiful but hard and unforgiving place, the camera seems to say; once people are trapped by an opiate fog, they find it difficult to escape.
While the tone of Enid Zentelis’ bantamweight romantic comedy Bottled Up could not be more unlike that of Dunne’s stark work, it has a similar kind of misery buried beneath its gentle exterior. Melissa Leo plays Fay, a single mother in a cozy river valley burg in upstate New York who seems to have ever so slightly given up on life. Fay has a live-in daughter, Sylvie (Marin Ireland), who supposedly runs a daycare during the week but is really just looking for her next fix of pain pills for a back problem likely healed months earlier. Although trying to run an awesomely hybridized small business (mail supplies, doughnuts, and body piercing), Fay’s real job is watching out for her daughter. Fay refuses to admit Sylvie is an addict and so conspires to hide her problems from the world and even helps her obtain fraudulent prescriptions.
Dropped into this wrenchingly codependent relationship is Becket (the criminally under-seen Josh Hamilton), a wide-eyed naïf of a granola activist who studies water pollution and is looking for a room to rent. Although the much younger Becket clearly has eyes for Fay, she insistently pushes a misbegotten scheme to hook him up with the fuzzy-headed Sylvie, whose lust is less for a man and more for her next pill.
Bottled Up is a small-scale comedy, with storylines determinedly mild and characters rudimentary. While her film’s laughs are not terribly well developed, Zentelis does have a good eye for character, in particular the awkward charm of Fay and Becket’s long-fuse romance. Hamilton’s easy and good-natured glow plays nicely off Leo’s flinty insecurities; a fully explored relationship between the two of them would have made for an excellent film in and of itself. But Zentelis wastes time with twee observations of the small town and Becket’s interest in water pollution, which leads to a narrative dead end.
Bottled UP‘s most honest and appealing aspect may be Ireland’s sharply honed portrayal of Sylvie, whose explosions of temper and confused malaise make for a painfully accurate take on the imprecise and maniacally self-obsessed chaos of the pain pill addict’s life. What this memorable character, with her toxic codependent entrapment of Fay, is doing in this milquetoast comedy is, however, never resolved.