‘American Relapse’ exposes flaws of American drug recovery industry

Two people leaning against a fence at night
Two people leaning against a fence at night

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

“Last year, more Americans died from drug overdoses than the entire Vietnam War.” This is the message delivered by the eye-opening documentary film, “American Relapse.”

Directed by Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt, “American Relapse” follows the lives of recovering addicts Allie Severino and Frank “Frankie” Holmes as they attempt to bring struggling addicts into detox and recovery programs throughout Delray Beach, Florida.

This particular area of South Florida is widely known as the rehabilitation capital of the United States, but according to Holmes, this makes it just as vulnerable to being the largest relapse capital as well. As is stated in the film, 90 percent of heroin treatments end in eventual relapse, making Delray Beach a hotspot for dealers preying on those who have recently come out of rehab.

And while Severino and Holmes work to save these struggling addicts from street violence, sexual abuse and risk of overdose by providing resources for them, their journey through recovery is still incredibly painful to watch. And what is so dynamic about the film is that viewers are not just rooting for the success of Severino and Holmes’ public work but also of their own journeys to maintain recovery from drug addiction. In this way, the film offers a humanizing look into Severino and Holmes’ work and the toll that helping others through the process can take on one’s own personal health.

As Holmes says in the film, working in recovery is like “experiencing all the chaos of addiction without taking the drugs.” Allowing cameras to follow this deeply personal journey, with often heartwrenching outcomes, makes viewers have respect for Severino and Holmes’ openness to spreading awareness.

Driving through streets they used to shoot up in and interacting with dealers they used to buy from make working in recovery difficult for their own healing process. The “euphoric relapse” is a concept Holmes introduced that doesn’t often get attention when discussing drug addiction. In recent movies such as “Beautiful Boy” and “A Star Is Born”, we see how an individual’s addiction affects those close to the subject, but it’s not often that we hear from the recovery volunteers and counselors about the impact their work has on their health as well.

One of the people Severino worked most closely with was her best friend, Kelly Tucker, who died of a drug overdose during the production of this film. Severino’s exhaustion after working in this field for so long comes out most when Tucker is fighting for custody of her two children, and viewers can physically feel the weight being placed on Severino’s shoulders.

The film is not for the weak of heart, as it often shows graphic imagery of real addicts preparing their drugs and shooting up on camera. At times, this can feel a little exploitative and insensitive to both the audience and the subjects on camera. For one particular person they followed, Conor Geary, the crew filmed him injecting more than once and proceeded to interview him after. Geary told a story of when he had been set on fire by a group of kids on the street, but as he was evidently high, it felt as if the filmmakers wanted to capitalize on Geary’s saddening circumstances rather than offer him assistance.

Holmes and Severino put the complicated topic of health insurance for recovering addicts to the side when working with them on the street, showing that, while people are out there giving their time to this cause, it’s just not enough. Treatment centers have reputations for exploiting addicts by overtesting them and driving up the amount of money insurance companies pay. The more people who relapse after leaving treatment centers, which only track the detox process, the more recovery centers profit off of continued addiction.

Overall, this film removes the mask covering the capitalism and selfishness of drug addiction treatment centers in the United States, particularly in Delray Beach. Since the production of the film, Florida laws pertaining to recovery and insurance have been adjusted to better assist struggling addicts, but this is still a national issue. Severino and Holmes are doing what they can to help South Florida solve this problem, but there is much work left to be done.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.