Warning: do not read this review close to bedtime. If you do, it may be difficult to sleep soundly. Yet disheartening as it is, it is nowhere near as heartbreaking as the subject matter of Sean Dunne’s feature documentary Oxyana, which premiered a little over a week ago at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Simply put, Oxyana is not a happy film. The 81-minute documentary about the effects of drug addiction in rural Oceana, West Virginia is nothing short of pang-inducing. It’s the type of documentary that makes one realize that, no matter how bad things in their life may be, they could be much, much worse. After all, they could live in Oceana — a once-prosperous town with such a profound problem with prescription drug addiction that locals call it “Oxyana.”

Much of the narrative is powered by interviews with the town’s various residents, and it’s their testimony that shocks the viewer more than the camera work of cinematographer Hillary Spera. One woman describes spending all $12,000 of her lottery winnings on drugs in a week; another man, who is also a drug dealer, discusses some doctors he knows who will write bogus prescriptions for drugs such as oxycodone for a fee of $1,000 per visit. These tales are in addition to a 23-year-old man who says half of his high school graduating class has already died of overdoses, and another man who explains the town’s infection rate for Hepatitis C is among the highest in the United States due to the prostitution some Oceana residents have turned to in order to fuel their drug habits — like one woman who says she has sex for money because it costs her at least $600 simply to get high. Varied as these people’s stories are, they all carry the same message: that drug abuse has destroyed what used to be, in the words of one elderly woman, “a nice family town.”

Hard of a pill as the film is to swallow, and as serious as its subject matter is, however, Oxyana is not without its distractions. Though Spera’s cinematography is quite solid, particularly an early sequence showing the main drag of Oceana that brings home the Small Town, USA setting, it seems almost too competent; no single shot or sequence serves as particularly mind-blowing, a style not unlike the 5 o’clock evening news or a Sunday evening news feature program such as 60 Minutes. Another issue is the subjects of the documentary themselves: while they lack the formal education that is unfortunately all-too-common in rural Appalachia, their incoherent ramblings are difficult to follow at best — even when they’re not high. Their words, particularly those of a brain-damaged man addicted to prescription painkillers for several years, would perhaps be easier to understand if subtitles were provided.

Conversely, Jonny Fritz and John McCauley’s subtle score never upstages what people are saying — this is a documentary, after all, and a serious one at that. Likewise, Kathy Gatto’s editing is simple and straightforward, perhaps a tad too predictable but conveying the journalistic who, what, where, why, when and how of the story in a way that the audience can decipher without having to think too hard.

Though unquestionably one of the most depressing films to have played at Tribeca this year, Oxyana is a solid feature-length debut for Dunne, whose short documentary The Archive was nominated for an Emmy in 2008. The Tribeca judges certainly liked it, as Dunne was voted Best New Documentary Director. As the judges stated, “Sean Dunne’s Oxyana is a major accomplishment, deeply sad without being sentimental, fearless, unblinking and deft in the filmmaker’s ability to coax harrowing stories from his subjects. It is not an easy film to watch. It could be read as hopeless, but by the end, something of the light of each person shone through. It presents an acute awareness of the severity of their situation mixed with an inner battle to not let this film be the final story of them or their once-proud town. We will never forget the faces of these people, their stories and their struggles.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

“Oxyana” premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 19.

Featured image: Pictured: Bobby and Shadow. Photo Credit: Hillary Spera.

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