Directed by Elaine McMillion
Netflix Film Review by Kirsty Asher
Heroin(e) is a short documentary produced exclusively for Netflix as part of their Netflix Originals documentary contingent, and focuses on the post-industrial town of Huntington, West Virginia. The reason for doing so would seemingly be that this town has been devastated by the opioid epidemic that has gripped America, with one in four people addicted some form of opiate.
Such alarming statistics would perhaps explain why Louis Theroux also decided to feature the town, and several of the same townspeople from Netflix’s doc, in the first episode of his Dark States series for the BBC. It’s a shame, for Theroux is a massive household name, and his almost indulgently bleak take on this town’s closed-door tragedy will inevitably garner a bigger audience, when this small film with a mighty heart is endlessly more captivating, inspiring, and above all optimistic.
The director Elaine McMillion, a West Virginian herself, chose to follow the daily life of three upstanding female members of the community for her documentary (hence the double-entendre of the title); a firefighter, a judge, and a Christian missionary. These three very different women share a down-to-earth, no-nonsense but nevertheless compassionate and fair-minded approach to helping addicts get their life back. There is the judge Patricia Keller, who sets up a rehabilitation programme and whose tactile court judgements spare addicts the worst sentences in order that they can better themselves. There is Necia Freeman, who hands out bags of food to addicted sex workers and pleads addicts’ cases at hostels and rehab clinics. And there’s firefighter Jan Rader, who insists on continuing the use of Naloxone to save the lives of repeat overdose victims, despite hesitation by others in the fire department, and whose quiet but unfailing determination to continue saving lives is an enduring inspiration. All three are exemplary of how prominent community members can help things change for the better, and it is almost a relief that the focus is on their strident optimism rather than forcing the vulnerable addicts to unveil their uncomfortable truths as was the case with Theroux’s exploration.
In the age of the opioid epidemic, it seems like a desperate race to produce cutting-edge and bleak content has emerged amongst documentary filmmakers, to deduce who can best highlight the despair and social danger associated with heroin. Yet this short manages to observe the bleakness while still looking ahead to a more promising future. Most pleasingly, and surprisingly, Heroin(e) never tips over into saccharine sentimentality, but rather acknowledges that the real heroes are those who continue to fight for the vulnerable while never relinquishing their pragmatism or their determination. It was also a welcoming sight to see such a positive piece of real- life film-making in 2017 – with the world and the United States in relative chaos, it’s very easy to forget that good people can still make a difference.