From the outside, life in Oceana, West Virginia seems ideal. The oldest town in Wyoming County is distinguished by beautiful mountains and soothing streams, an unhurried pace, and the simple pleasures of an unpretentious existence. But beneath the surface lies a sinister underworld. The scourge of prescription drug abuse has ravaged the community, resulting in widespread addiction, rampant crime and escalating death rates.
The award-winning documentary Oxyana places us inside the center of Oceana’s heartbreak and despair, and paints a harrowing portrait of modern day small town America.
It wasn’t always like this. At one time, Oceana was a booming coal mining capital. Then, the corporations came in and claimed the lion’s share of an industry that has previously belonged to the people. Older generations began to fall ill from black lung and other diseases. Economic downturns hit families hard. With few job prospects and even fewer options for extracurricular activities, the youth quickly grew listless and unengaged.
Perhaps this embedded sense of fatalism set the stage for addiction’s lethal grip. Regardless of its origin, residents are now in the throes of an epidemic of unprecedented proportions. Oceana fills more prescriptions per capita than any other city in the country by as much as 50%.
The film documents the daily lives of its inhabitants without intrusive commentary or judgement. An emergency care worker reveals that an average of one patient a day dies of a drug overdose in their hospital. A desperate mother sobs and pleads with her son to attend rehab before his child is born. Teen girls speak of their experiences serving as prostitutes in exchange for a single dose of Oxycontin. A young man reflects on the drug-related deaths of half of his high school graduating class. A drug dealer explains the inner workings of his criminal enterprise. His efforts are empowered by shady figures within the medical community, and they reward him with extraordinary profits. But even he understands the dire human costs of the service he provides. “It’s killing a lot of people and it’s not going to stop,” he says.
Oxyana captures this stark reality with unbearable honesty at times. The community it portrays is at war from within, but it’s not so far removed from countless other cities and towns across the United States.