Thursday, May 13, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.06: The Oxy Kingpins

As much as I kind of knew that the guy who I hear opening every all-employee "Town Hall" call at work was going to show up in this movie, it's still awfully dispiriting when your employer's parent company appears prominently in a movie about how there was a pretty darn seamless pipeline between major pharmaceutical distributors, street drug dealers, and addicts that created a crisis that has killed many, with only the latter two groups actually facing consequences for their action. I didn't really choose to work for them affirmatively - I joined a small-ish start up looking to save lives by preventing chemotherapy drug interactions and overdoses, and then somehow a few years and two acquisitions later, that startup is a division of a business unit of a Fortune 10 company. I don't hate the vacation policy, but being even vaguely associated with this is depressing.

Anyway, it's a weird feeling to get to the end of a documentary still being in favor with corporations being hit with fines that are as proportionately ruinous as any individual would face but also hoping that when they make cuts to offset them, they'll ignore the good people in the chemotherapy drug reporting department.

End disclaimer, begin review, watch the movie.

The Oxy Kingpins

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Though many people are touched directly enough by what is often called "the opioid crisis" or "the opioid epidemic" for it not to be abstract, some are lucky enough for it to not be directly affected and others, quite naturally, are concerned enough about the immediate ill effects that they don't tend to think about the other end of the supply chain. The Oxy Kingpins does a fair job of remedying that; it may not have a proper ending, but the filmmakers do yeoman's work explaining how so many pills got into the wrong hands, and maybe what can be done about it.

The film starts provocatively, as a young man without either face or voice disguised says that he enjoyed being a drug dealer, and how oxycontin changed the game: A powerful painkiller that might as well be heroin, easy to transport, and insanely addictive, the only problem was getting enough, and while some people were selling unused pills from a prescription or stealing from pharmacies, parts of Florida were creating a cottage industry of "pain management clinics", basically doctors writing bogus scrips which could be filled at any drug store. He's not just sharing this information with the filmmakers, but with attorney Mike Papantonio, whose firm handles massive trials and is putting together a series of class-action lawsuits against the major drug distributors for how their push to over-prescribe has created addicts and their lax enforcement has allowed criminal networks to thrive.

In many ways, The Oxy Kingpins is most notable for what it's not: Directors Nick August-Perna and Brendan Fitzgerald spend almost no time on poverty porn or watching addicts suffer, with the main figure chosen to represent that side of the story has more or less come out the other end, rebuilding her life and not looking back, although it's clear that the spinal surgery that led to her painkiller habit still affects her today. At times, the filmmakers seem to be deliberately putting those stories to the side - even Papantonio emphasizes that he is not representing individuals, but the governments that have had to increase their budgets due to the suppliers' criminal negligence - because while those stories hit the audience hard on a gut level, that emotional response can be a distraction from what they're trying to get across.

And it's kind of necessary, because while what Alex-the-former-dealer and his more-anonymous colleagues talk about is exciting, Papantino's side of the story is kind of dry. Both are charismatic enough in their way, but Alex's stories are things you can get caught up in even as you blanch at the sheer amorality of it, even if you obviously much rather have someone like Mike Papantino on your side in a courtroom where the judge will brook no nonsense and grandstanding. It's a useful contrast, especially when you look at the two types of operations that this situation fundamentally entwines: The obvious relatively low-level criminals that traditional law enforcement is built to deal with, and the folks who are so rich and able to hire clever people as to be outside their reach.

Whichever part of the chain that they're dealing with, the filmmakers are adept at getting their information out clearly, not getting too bogged down in specific procedural details but giving the viewer the sort of specific facts and scenes that can stick in their heads. A big part of making a movie like this work is telling the sort of story that someone else might retell later, so that even if it doesn't give the movie a bigger audience, the facts get out there. This film lays the situation out clearly in a way that goes down pretty easy, and that is more or less the goal.

The one caveat is that it ends on a screen saying the trial in Nevada is set for April 2021, and while that does make one wonder why the filmmakers couldn't have waited for an actual ending. Of course, the goal here is to explain, not necessarily tell a story, and that ending could have forced a change in focus on what is considered important. Without it, The Oxy Kingpins does the job its makers set out to do - no more, but certainly no less.

Also at eFilmCritic

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