‘Oxyana’ Movie Review: Documentary Exposes West Virginia’s Horrifying Drug Addiction Crisis
It would be an understatement to say that something is wrong in Oceana, West Virginia: not long into Oxyana, Sean Dunne’s feature documentary debut, you can’t help wondering what, if anything, is right there. The film begins with a long montage of beautiful, haunting images shot from a moving vehicle as it passes the ramshackle structures that make up the decrepit town Oceana has, in recent years, become. The first series of interview clips features men and women, old and young, who still remember the town as it was not so long ago: a great place to raise kids, they insist, a great place to grow up, a town where nobody locked the doors. It sounds like a latter-day, small-town American idyll, this remembered Oceana, and though it may never have lived up to the nostalgic romanticism that has grown up around it, we’re left with no doubt that something terrible has happened to this place in the last ten years or so.
This terrible thing is, most literally, an epidemic of prescription drug addiction; more broadly, it is the crisis of West Virginia as a state, of Appalachia as a region, and of small-town America as a way of life. Oceana was a coal town, in its heyday, and it says a lot about its current state that the residents interviewed wax nostalgic about those days of yore when all the men had well-paying jobs down in the mines, when their wives stayed at home raising the kids, and everything was good. It seems to me that an economy offering few options outside of coal mining for men and homemaking for women must have had a few problems of its own, but those problems recede in the face of the present catastrophe, in which there is no industry to speak of in Oceana besides the illegal prescription drug business.
The world has moved on from coal as an energy source, and neither the federal nor the state governments have seen fit to do much of anything to rehabilitate the areas suffering from that change, Oceana among them. It has become a forgotten place, a shadow of that old town, from which it is virtually impossible to escape. Probably the most educated of Dunne’s interviewees, the town dentist, remarks upon the feeling of fatalism that pervades the area: there is a sense, he says, amongst all the men and women and teenagers living in Oceana that they and their friends will not live very long, and that there’s no way of living outside of prescription drugs, whether you sell or consume them, or do a little of both. One particularly desperate woman, a struggling mother, says frankly, “If it wasn’t for drugs in this town, there would be no town.” It’s hard to argue with her, based on the evidence presented in the film: one doctor says that the hospital gets one death as a result of overdose per day. In a town of approximately 1,300, that’s a pretty apocalyptic figure.