Oceana, West Virginia used to thrive via the coal mining industry. It was a town where you could leave your door open to your house overnight and wake up knowing you were safe. Then things changed as the coal business began to decline. In response, the town eventually became the epicenter for Oxycontin abuse, resulting in a population largely of addicts. As doctors over-prescribed the drug, an industry was born when the only viable way to make money outside of the coal industry was to deal Oxy.
Director Sean Dunne’s visceral documentary Oxyana, what many have nicknamed the town, is composed of a series of interviews with Oceana inhabitants – the overwhelming majority of them addicted to Oxy – and it doesn’t shy away from anything. Addicts of all ages are filmed snorting and injecting Oxy, they are filmed getting high, they are filmed coming down. They’re filmed smoking cigarettes inches away from their babies’ faces. They’re filmed smoking while pregnant. You might want to look away, but you can’t.
The documentary follows various subjects, most of their senses almost completely dulled by the drug. Among the most intriguing are couple Shadow and James (pictured above). James is suffering from the later stages of advanced brain cancer, and he insists on shooting up both his and Shadow’s arms with Oxy. Another subject, the imposingly-sized Juggalo Jason (Dunne, perhaps coincidentally, also directed the short American Juggalo), insists on using despite the pleas of his pregnant wife and his mother for him to stop. Perhaps one of the most tragic figures in the documentary is James, both a user and a dealer of Oxy, whose entire family died as as a cruel aftereffect of their Oxy usage.
While these various subjects in the documentary are on the fringes of society and engage in illegal activities, Dunne never judges them, which is hugely important. Times are hard and the selling of Oxy is a just a means of survival for them, albeit a means with tragic consequences. The people know that they are in dire straits, they know that they are living dead end lives, and Dunne sympathizes with them. He never decries them for being immoral. There are, of course, non-user interviewees like Jason’s wife and mother, as well as a local dentist, who sees the inherent goodness in Oceana and has decided that he wishes for his family to remain in the town despite the obvious dangers. He performed many a tooth extraction on addicts, and sees what is happening to his town, but he refuses to give up on it. Much like Dunne himself, the dentist recognizes the damage done by Oxy, though he doesn’t condemn the inhabitants.
Even though they are fairly minor, Oxyana does have its shortcomings. For one, the overall tone of the film is unrelentingly bleak. Obviously, it is near impossible (and should be impossible) to make a “feel good” doc about Oxycontin, though the odd moment of levity would have provided some relief from the cloud of desperation and sadness here. Perhaps documenting someone who made it out of Oceana would given a nice counterpoint.
Also, the talking heads format zaps some of the effectiveness from the film. While this is clearly intentional, it perhaps would have been beneficial for Dunne to capture his subjects living their lives in a fly on the wall sense rather than solely having the direct interviews. Without which, there’s little context given to deliver a bigger picture of their routines and how the drug affects their daily activities.
Despite these detractions, Oxyana is definitely worth seeing, though you’ll have to brace yourself for what you’re about to see. Dunne films Oceana’s residents as they literally unravel in front of the camera, and while it is a tough watch, it’s a very enthralling one.
The Upside: Oxyana certainly is an unflinching documentary, which is definitely a good thing, as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the drug abuse it uncovers.
The Downside: The talking heads format does get a bit tired after a while. And while it is very compelling, the material covered in the film is also very depressing.
On the Side: One of the film’s two composers, Jonny Fritz is a musician who used to go by the name of Jonny Corndawg.