Tribeca Review: Oxyana


A couple of weeks ago, the 1995 patent on the painkiller OxyContin expired. OxyContin is a particularly potent form of the opioid Oxycodone, and is intended to be released over time rather than immediately. When taken orally, this worked as intended, but if crushed the extended release mechanism in the pill was destroyed and snorting or injecting the drug would immediately release the full effect.

In 2010, Purdue Pharma, the company behind OxyContin, released a new version which would turn into a jelly-like substance when crushed, making it difficult if not impossible to snort/inject. With the end of the patent in sight, many were worried that generic companies would go back to the old, non-tamper proof formula and cheap, potent tablets of Oxycodone would hit the streets to potentially disastrous consequences. On the day the patent expired, the F.D.A. said it would not allow generics of OxyContin that did not have their own tamper-proof mechanism, effectively blocking their sale. This has lasting ramifications both in the way pharmaceutical companies could potentially keep hold of medical patents in the future and in the way it sets precedent against abusable prescription drugs.

I learned absolutely none of the above information from Oxyana, a documentary about a town plagued by Oxycodone addiction. In fact, the only thing I did learn from Oxyana was the step-by-step process of getting a tablet of Oxycodone IR into a human body through a needle.

Director: Sean Dunne
Release Date: TBD
Rating: NR 

Now, it may not be fair for me to criticize a film for not talking about events that transpired after I had seen it, but I was using it as a more generally interesting example of what is a fundamental issue with Oxyana: it doesn’t give any sort of context or real-world relevance. Oceana is a town in West Virginia that is plagued by drug addiction, and the number one drug of choice is Oxycodone IR, shortened to Oxy, hence “Oxyana.” Right from the first time I saw a clearly printed label on a little orange bottle, I wondered why they used Oxycodone vs. OxyContin, which is particularly famous for its addictiveness. I didn’t know what the difference was (or if Oxycodone IR was just a generic of OxyContin, which it isn’t) It was never explained. It’s possible (probable even) that before 2010 Oceana residents were addicted to OxyContin, but the film never addressed that either. The only two lessons learned from Oxyana are: 

1) Drugs are bad, mmkay?
2) Never go to West Virginia.

Hardly profound additions to the conversation about the addiction problems plaguing this country. Here we get into the murky territory of directorial intent, and clearly director Sean Dunne wasn’t interested in adding to the conversation, but then why make a documentary at all? To give the creative team the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that they were trying to make something of an ethnography of a town riddled with addiction and not trying to say anything about the addiction itself. Here it’s still woefully incomplete.


Right from the opening of the film, it’s clear that the team’s priorities are in the wrong place. After a vague comment from an unnamed person about the death of a loved one, the film begins with music and shots of a town that wouldn’t be out of place in Roger and Me, but they go on for far too long. Without the manipulative brilliance of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” there’s not a lot of emotional weight. I don’t know where this town is, what it is, or why I should care. Hell, I don’t even know for sure that it’s all the same town. When the film returns (multiple times) to this sort of imagery, at least I have a sense of location, but every single shot of sadness and disrepair is exactly the same as every other shot, and it’s all meaningless. Without any juxtaposition or context, this may be exactly what all of West Virginia looks like. I don’t know, and it’s hard to care. It’s hard to care about anything, really. I certainly didn’t care about the people.

You see, Oxyana truly is desolation porn, even beyond the unnecessarily lengthy sequences of depressing exteriors. Much of the rest of the film is made up of interviews with people who live in the area. It’s not clear who any of these people are (with a couple of exceptions) or why anyone should feel for them beyond some sort of human connection, but they were apparently chosen to represent Oceana, and they succeed in making the whole place seem even worse. There are many, many things wrong with the way these interviews are handled, but the two most egregious problems can only be blamed on a creative team that really didn’t care about what they were doing or who they were showing the film to.


First up: lack of naming. When you watch a documentary, you expect to see names pop up on the bottom of the screen whenever a new person starts talking to give you at least some sort of context. Having that name gives something that just seeing a person doesn’t quite give. Oxyana gives no names, and I don’t think it’s unrelated that the person I felt the most for in the film was the one person who started off his interview by introducing himself, but that leads me to number two: lack of subtitling.

Most of the principle interviewees have thick accents, and some of them also have other impediments that make understanding them nigh impossible to someone who isn’t already attune to that sort of thing. This was particularly bad in the case of one guy who spoke at about 400 words per minute and used “fuck” the way stereotypical valley girls use “like.” I had no idea what he was trying to say at any given moment. Granted, I doubt it really mattered, because nothing anybody else said was particularly enlightening and I have trouble believing he would be the saving grace, but they really should have subtitled him. Hell, they should have subtitled everyone. I’ve seen Asian films where people spoke clearer English than this, and they still subtitled it, just in case. Then again, if the filmmakers had to subtitle it, they would have been forced to truly realize just how insignificant their contribution to the addiction discourse really is.

Goddamn I hate this movie

I keep harping on this, but it’s really the thing that’s so offensive about Oxyana. There’s no reason for it to exist. So many interesting questions are left open, and I found myself in the bowels of the internet on a forum for junkies hours after the screening ended, trying to learn something from the subject. It was a bizarre experience reading people talk about Oxycodone and heroin and other drugs and the feelings involved and everything. It was an experience I didn’t get from Oxyana, even as I was actually watching people inject themselves there (itself a bizarre experience). It’s also what was needed if the film was going to really neglect the non-junkie side of things. A couple of interviewees were not addicts (although the majority were), but they didn’t have much worth saying. One was a dentist who had been tricked into prescribing things at first and had decided to stop, another was the mother of an addict (who looked irritatingly like the guy who was completely incomprehensible, confusing everything further thanks to the lack of names), and so on, but the only time a doctor with any actual experience with abusers (worked in a local ER) was interviewed, he said something short and was then ignored.

Instead, we went back to the woman who was about to lose her baby because she was a junkie. At no point during her interview did she ever stop crying, and I just wanted her to go away. I didn’t care about her plight, because it was her own goddamn fault. It was everyone’s goddamn fault. If you don’t feel bad for addicts, you’re not going to feel bad for them after watching Oxyana. In fact, if you do feel bad for addicts, watching it will probably change your mind. The only person worth feeling anything for is the one dying from seven different brain tumors, and he makes a point that the Oxy isn’t to make him high, just to get him through the day (his horrifically obese wife doesn’t get the same pass). His story was sad, and I imagine the other ones were too, but so what? They should leave. At least one character spent a good portion of his life homeless and could have been homeless anywhere, another made tons of money selling drugs and should have just gotten up and gone, and so on and so forth. There’s really no way to feel anything but disdain unless you just really like feeling bad for people.

Oh look, a sad baby!

And I don’t. I tried to care for a while, but the whole film is alienating and irritating. What could have been a fascinating exploration into either drug abuse or a grander vision of this town, but it’s neither of those things. In fact, I don’t really know what it is. It’s nothing, really. Nothing worth watching and certainly nothing worth writing 1500 words about. But hopefully these words have impressed Oxyana‘s irrelevance on you. Maybe they’ve convinced you to seek out junkie forums or look up the Oxycontin patent controversy. That’s all fascinating stuff, and going down that rabbit hole might be an interesting way to spend a rainy day. But not Oxyana.

It’s best we just pretend that it was a bad trip. Do you trip when you take Oxycodone? Shocker: Oxyana doesn’t tell you. Maybe I’ll go look that up. Hopefully I can go forget about this film.

Hubert Vigilla: There’s probably a good (albeit incomplete) 30-minute documentary in Oxyana about the lives of OxyContin/oxycodone abusers in Oceana, West Virginia, but at 80 minutes, the material in the film is spread too thin. This becomes evident in the musical interludes, which function less like moody transitions and more like moody filler. While the first musical interlude suggests a weather-beaten and rusted-over land of blue-collar dreams turned into junkie desperation, the second and third musical interludes feel like they’re just killing time in the rental car.

Part of the issue with Oxyana is its limited focus, which could have actually become the film’s strength had more care been taken with these personal narratives. While the the lives of the users are fascinating, their stories are shuffled around haphazardly with no sense of conversation or connection with the other stories around them. On top of that, for some reason the filmmakers never provide captions with their subjects’s names. (Just a first name would have sufficed.) This anonymity makes the addicts memorable only for traits rather than as actual people, which is a shame since a few of these addicts share some deeply affecting stories about how messed up their lives have become.

At 80 minutes, there’s hope that Oxyana would shift focus to the situation in the town before zeroing back in on the addicts again. There could have been a day in the life of the local emergency room, which has at least one death by OD a day and has a nursery filled with babies born as addicts. Yet apart from a few sentences that relate those statistics, the film never explores the issue in any meaningful way. The same goes with the point of view of law enforcement, coal workers (the biggest source of employment in the state), residents who aren’t users, or the nearest methadone clinic. 40 — Subpar