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.
Most distressing, of course, is the effect that this vacuum of industry, education, and life itself will have on the next generation. One teenage girl estimates that, in order for her to get high, she would have to spend $600 to $800 — per day. Over and over again, we hear stories of parents spending their last pennies on a fix. Aside from the obvious, immediate negative impact of this behavior on individual children, as a widespread phenomenon it essentially means the eradication of any potential savings that parents might be able to pass on to them. Economic inequality is largely dependent on the fact that the impoverished simply do not have the ability to generate savings and make investments. This is hardly a problem unique to Oceana, but the particular situation there makes it a compelling case study of the cycle of poverty that plagues the American lower class.
Very early in the film, a young woman who looks like she can’t be more than a few years out of high school (we later find out that she has been married and divorced, and had a child who was taken away from her while she was an addict) angrily tells Dunne that the prescription drug epidemic in Oceana is due to the fact that, “There’s nothing to do here.”
She is possibly the angriest of the interviewees — they tend more toward resigned than angry — and clearly has a sharp native intelligence. What do smart kids do when they are raised in such a place? How is college even an option? There’s no money, obviously, and it seems unlikely that they get an education as children and teenagers rigorous enough to prepare them for college even if they could manage to land scholarships. The sight of college t-shirts on a number of the young interviewees — for the University of West Virginia, UNC, and Duke — is a depressing reminder of the opportunities they didn’t have. The young mothers with babies express similar concerns: “There’s nothing here to grow up on,” one of them says. And it’s true. There is no future in Oceana, only a nostalgic past, never to be regained, and a seemingly endless, nightmarish present that is impossible to escape.
Though the political implications of the film are clear and damning, Oxyana — a real nickname for the town — is not overtly polemical. Dunne is far more interested in investigating how the drug epidemic and its political undercurrents impact individuals. His central theme is human connection: how, he implicitly asks, does addiction erode love, and in what ways might love transcend addiction? One dealer and addict, who gets more screentime than any other interviewee, suspects that his father killed his mother and brother before committing suicide over an argument over Oxycontin; another, whose girlfriend is pregnant, refuses to go to rehab despite the fact that he has no income or savings with which to provide for his child. But on the other side of the coin are two couples, whose love for each other clearly gives their lives meaning: in possibly the most moving moment of the entire film, the heavily obese wife of an addict with brain cancer explains that she’ll stay with him until his death, and then care for his mother, because he helped her understand that her life had worth, and that she was deserving of love. If there is any hope to be found in Oceana, it is in moments like this one, or in the palpable love mothers have for their children, infant or grown.
But love, of course, is not enough on its own, for that woman’s husband will die, and the children born in Oceana will not get out, not unless something radical changes about our country’s public policy in the next few years — and that is as much a fantasy as the idea that the coal industry will somehow revive itself, and that everything will go back to the way it was ten or twenty years ago. Oxyana has no solution to the Oceana’s predicament: it simply chronicles it with sensitivity, intelligence, and an eerie lyricism that makes it a festival standout.