Oceana, West Virginia, is a picturesque mining town nestled in Wyoming County that boasts extraordinary natural beauty. But underneath the surface, a problem is brewing. The prescription drug epidemic that engulfs the entire United States is particularly evident in West Virginia, and Wyoming County was ranked No. 1 one for prescription drug overdoses in 2011. Oceana has a particular problem, which was immediately obvious to the makers of the film “Oxyana” when they set foot in the town. The “Oxy” addition to the town’s name comes from OxyContin—one of the most abused prescription painkillers in the U.S.—and the movie turns the spotlight on the entire country’s prescription drug problem.
Oxyana isn’t a typical documentary. The viewer isn’t guided through the scenes and introduced to the problem with the help of a smooth-voiced narrator; instead, the story is told directly by those living in the middle of the addiction epidemic. It’s a patchwork collection of interviews, taking the viewer deep into the heart of the corrupted and overdosed American dream. It’s an unflinching, up-close and personal look at the reality of prescription drug abuse in rural America.
Some residents of Oceana have taken issue with the negative image the film paints of the town, but filmmaker Sean Dunne is keen to point out that he separates “Oxyana” from Oceana. In his viewpoint, “Oxyana” is a fleeting phenomenon that is ultimately being played out in many towns and cities across America, and he says Oceana itself is full of “some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, hard-working honest people.” When he was questioned on the debatable statistics quoted by many of the film’s interviewees, he responded, “This isn’t a film that is meant to be informational in that way. It’s meant to be immersive. It’s meant to show the up close and personal of what drug addiction looks like.” See the Oxyana trailer here.
Prescription Drug Abuse
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990, and much of this is attributable to the rising tide of prescription drug abuse. In fact, more people die overdosing on prescription medicines than heroin and cocaine combined, and painkillers are among the key drugs implicated in the epidemic. In 2010, more than 12 million Americans used a prescription painkiller non-medically.
The choice of Oceana is probably the most controversial element of the film. With a problem covering the entire nation, how can a filmmaker make his entire treatment of the issue about just one place? While the region does have a genuinely high percentage of prescription drug abusers, the openness and honesty of the residents, according to Dunne, is what drew him to return to the town to make the documentary. He points out that when you’re looking for a raw, honest portrayal of a serious problem, you need people who are willing to talk about it. He found this within 10 minutes of his first visit to Oceana, and was continually met with the same brutal honesty throughout the remaining interviews. The high concentration of addicts is indicative of a deeper problem, but the residents’ honesty is exactly what is needed if we’re ever to understand the epidemic fully.
In fact, Dunne goes so far as to say Oceana is a microcosm of the U.S. Driven by socioeconomic disadvantage, joblessness and psychological maladies, addicts are weighed down by their substances and left to continually try to stave off withdrawal. The medicine seems like it’s safe, but in reality, it’s far from it. Watching Oxyana is bound to strike a chord with many viewers and tug at heartstrings across the nation. The story isn’t bound by geography; it’s a story we all know too well.
The decision to focus on the first-person, subjective accounts of the issue may limit the brute force of the argument being put forward, but the purpose of the film is more about understanding the issue from a personal perspective than an absolute one. The only advice for anybody inspired by its message is to do your research. The emotive stories should spark an interest in many Americans, but the true hope is that it spurs them on to find out more about the problem and take steps to prevent it from devouring their personal lives.