Documentary Review: American Relapse (dir by Adam Linkenhelt and Pat McGee)

In general, I usually don’t get much out of watching documentaries about drug addiction.  There’s a few reasons for this:

1. Drug addicts are depressing to watch.

2. Drug addicts are boring to listen to.

3. Since everyone knows that drug addiction is a bad thing and that there’s usually only two possible endings to a drug addict’s story — death or detox — it’s not like the majority of drug addiction documentaries have anything new or surprising to tell us.

4. I always find myself wondering about just how much the film crew is enabling the addicts that they’re following around.   There’s always a feeling that the documentary crew is more concerned with putting addicts on display as opposed to actually getting them the help that they need.  It’s hard not to feel that the point of many of these documentaries (and reality shows) is to invite the viewers to gawk and say, “My life may be messed up but at least I’m not passed out in the parking lot of Burger King with a syringe hanging out of my arm.”

Taking all that in mind, I do have to say that I found the new documentary, American Relapse, to be a disturbing and thought-provoking look at not only drug addiction but also the way that the rehab industry has become a big business in South Florida.  Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino are two former addicts who now work as — well, they’re referred to as being “Junkie Hunters,” though Allie objects to the term.  A junkie hunter is someone who searches the streets, befriends drug addicts, and eventually takes them to rehab.  Frankie and Allie both say that they’re in the business because they want to help people and save lives.  At the same time, they also admit that their industry is full of people who don’t care about the addicts that they’re claiming to help.  Instead, they’re simply looking for addicts who have good health insurance so that the rehab centers can make money off of treating them and the hunters can make money off of finding them.

As American Relapse demonstrates, there’s a lot of money to be made in rehab.  The simple act of giving someone a drug test can bring in a few hundred dollars, assuming that the person being tested has insurance.  For a rehab center to make money, there has got to be addicts to make money off of and every time that a formerly sober person relapses, that means even more money. It leads to a viscous cycle, one where people will help but only so much.

The film alternates between scenes explaining how the rehab industry works and scenes of Frankie and Allie working the streets and searching for addicts.  Frankie spends his time trying to get Conor into rehab.  Allie spends most of her time searching for a missing friend of her’s while also trying to help a homeless couple.  Adam Jasinski, who won Big Brother 9 and later went to prison for using his winnings to stet up a drug distribution network, shows up for a few minutes and acts like a dick.  Unfortunately, there are no happy endings.  By the end of the documentary, some people have died.  Others have vanished.  One of the “junkie hunters” has relapsed.

It’s certainly not a happy documentary.  It’s also a bit too long as well.  105 minutes is a long time to spend watching people who aren’t going anywhere.  (Then again, if you consider that Allie and Frankie spend their entire day doing just that, perhaps 105 minutes is not too much to ask.)  Like a lot of recent documentaries, the film occasionally tries to shake things up by inserting animation and clips from old educational films and the results are a bit mixed.  This documentary works best when it sticks to a cinéma vérité style.  Still, it’s a thought-provoking if rather depressing look at lives of intense desperation.