That's What the Pills Will Do to You
“Oxyana exists in Oceana but it’s not the same thing.”
“I’d love to go through this program, and have my kid, and just have a normal life, like even if I have to work at McDonald’s or something.” The young speaker wears a West Virginia Mountaineers t-shirt. “Jut a normal life. Like, I don’t have to worry about dope. But it’s just living in this area, it’s everywhere.”
“In this area” means Oceana, a mining town in southern West Virginia, home to some 1394 people. It also means, like this young woman says, “everywhere.” As she and other speakers in the documentary Oxyana describe their lives as addicts and relations to addicts, you come to see that what counts as “normal” here is both like and unlike “normal” elsewhere. Which is to say, addiction is devastating everywhere, and moreso in Oceana.
Sean Dunne’s film opens on James, wearing a black kerchief on his head and holding a shirt, his dead brother’s. “Still smells like him,” James says, “It sucks, man, when it’s all you got left of your family.” Here the film cuts to long shots, haunting mountains and mist, long roads and trucks, a couple of American flags on poles, trailer homes, storefronts, chainlink fences, McDonald’s golden arches and a 7-Eleven. This opening sequence closes on a long shot of a boy on a pay phone, slow motion showing his limbs loose and long, almost as if he’s dancing. And then you catch yourself, wondering at what you’ve just wondered, namely, whether he’s on the phone in search of drugs or to sell them, and you see that you’re in Oxyana now, guessing at what you see and listening carefully to what everyone has to say.
Your education here is deep. The movie—now available for purchase on DVD and also on Vimeo—isn’t an essay on causes or effects, it’s not a clinical or legal study; it is, rather, a series of impressions, half-conversations and precisely composed images, inside living rooms and kitchens, on porches and, in the case of dentist Mike Moore, inside a clinic, where he’s surrounded by curtains and equipment. “Every person I know knows someone personally who has ODed and died,” he says, during a sequence illustrating what this might mean, in actual lives. James pulls out a box of memorial cards, noting the alarming youth of his several lost friends, just before he tells the story of how he lost his family, when his father shot everyone, apparently during an argument over prescription medications.
Moore says he loves the town, so full of “amazing people with big hearts, so much love to go around.” Now, he says, “There’s this darkness that has come over it.” His analysis may be the film’s most extensive, as Moore looks back on the history of Oceana, the abuses by outsiders, dispensing drugs to keep miners on the job (and so creating a “culture of pills”) and cheating local landowners out of mineral rights. Drugs constitute much of the current economy in Oceana. One user, Bobby, sits on his couch, cigarette in hand and skinny chest exposed. His girlfriend sits beside him, nodding when he says, “If you don’t see someone getting up in the morning and going to work, they’re selling pills.” A young mother in her kitchen tells the filmmaker that, although she doesn’t abuse the varieties of pills she takes for pain, “I hate for y’all to be around this atmosphere, because not everybody’s like this. Really.” She pauses, then adds that selling drugs is a “quick dollar, because everybody’s wanting. People you wouldn’t even think of, cops even.”
As she says this, you realize that you would think of this, that the idea you have of Oxyana—not the town, but the epidemic it represents—is exactly this, that loss here is pervasive, as both cause and symptom. She appears in other moments, alongside her husband and with her daughter in her lap of pressing herself against the front door, each time an embodiment of the idea you have, the oppression and the complexity of addiction, the hopelessness. Jason, in a red bandana, describes his “love-hate relationship” with Oxycontin. “I love how it makes me feel, ” he says, “I hate what it’s doing to me and to everyone around me.” His mother urges him to go to rehab, and he can’t look at her while they speak and he paces.
Jason’s wife also stands by him, recalling, “I always said I wouldn’t be around anybody who did that kind of stuff.” She smiles nervously, “You get mean sometimes,” laughing nervously, a Coke bottle in her hand. The camera pans to Jason as he talks over her. “People treat you a different way,” he says, “You’re nothing to the society, you’re a fucking addict, you can’t fucking help it. If I could, I’d quite shit today. I don’t even want to think about another motherfucking pill.” He keeps on, his cadence quick and smooth, as if he’s preaching, You hear her off-screen, murmuring and agreeing. “Then something happens, you get money, you get worked up, get my pill, I’m happy.” The wide shot shows bot husband and wife. “I’m a mean son of a bitch sometimes,” he admits, “I’m still with you though,” she says, fast. He keeps talking and then a dirt bike sounds, the camera holding for a beat on her face, silenced.
“What it’s doing” to her and everyone else is clear in every frame, whether you see people or whether you see empty roads or the local cemetery, lumber unused or windows boarded up. One man, living beneath an underpass, holds out his arms, wide, and announces, “Drugs put me right here.” The camera cuts to the trees above, bright, perfect sunlight peeping through. Again, the film juxtaposes the pain and the poetry, the effects of the pills and the people affected. When Bobby’s girlfriend recalls that her ex once saved her when she was OD-ing, the filmmaker asks from off-screen whether she wanted to die that day. Yes, she says, because she was missing her kids and saw no hoe of getting them back. Bobby explains, “If y’all had just a quarter of the addiction we’ve been through, you would understand, you wouldn’t even have asked that question. You would have been like, ‘Damn, why am I even still alive today?’’”
You might ask this, and you might also ask why addiction remains so relentless, so unaffected by the “war on drugs.” You might also wonder about the seemingly impassable gap between you and them, how you’re encouraged to believe in that gap, to imagine punishment is anything near an answer to this epidemic. “Nobody’s going to care,” Bobby says, “you know, this is West Virginia, it’s like we’re all a bunch of inbred pieces of shit, you know. People are actually trying you know, you can’t get nowhere. It just sucks, man.” It’s hard to say where he might go or how he might get out. In showing addicts and their family members as people, self-aware and struggling as they may be, Oxyana might make you think again.