As if it weren’t difficult enough to survive their drug habits — as well as lives on the streets — addicts in Delray Beach, Fla. must also contend with a predatory healthcare industry that views them as a source of continued profit. That’s the argument made by “American Relapse,” directors Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt’s illuminating documentary about two recovering addicts, Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino, striving to get desperate men and women the help they need. As both a primer on the Sunshine State’s insurance paradigm and a snapshot of narcotics dependency, it boasts an urgency that, post-theatrical release, should help it score a small-screen audience.
A companion piece to McGee and Linkenhelt’s Viceland series “Dopesick Nation,” which similarly focuses on Frankie and Allie, albeit in more in-depth fashion, “American Relapse” is most eye-opening in its explanation of the scams that drive the treatment business in Delray Beach, the supposed “Relapse Capital of the World.” Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s decision to cover addiction services, facilities can reap considerable windfalls by funneling drug users with health insurance through their programs, which involve pit-stops at detox and partial hospitalization and outpatient centers — all of which do little to actually cure the afflicted, who are soon back using and then, if lucky, back in the program to restart the cycle.
This monetization of addiction has led to a “gold rush” predicated, as McGee and Linhkenhelt repeatedly visualize, on the valuable (positive-testing) urine of men and women in dire straits. It’s a system facilitated by “junkie hunters,” who scour the streets on behalf of clinics, looking for easy targets. Frankie and Allie are in that business, but the film’s ride-along footage of them at work bolsters their claims that they’re not out to exploit. Rather, since both are former users themselves (Frankie with the facial burn scars to show for it, caused by a factory mishap while high), they sincerely empathize with their down-and-out clients, and afford them aid even when they don’t have insurance.
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Over the course of a Friday-Monday weekend, Frankie and Allie’s vocation brings them into contact with the very milieu, and sorts of individuals, they’ve tried to escape — at least to an extent, given that Allie’s boyfriend is also in recovery. Triggers abound, and it’s no surprise when temptations prove to be too great. McGee and Linkenhelt don’t shy away from the ugliness and misery of this underworld, providing stark images of people cooking smack on back-alley garbage cans and shooting it into their ankles, sleeping next to train tracks on filthy mattresses amidst garbage, and weeping as they embark on yet another trip to rehab.
As an on-the-ground portrait of addiction, there’s little here that hasn’t been seen before (especially if one has watched TV’s “Intervention”). And the aesthetic devices used by the directors to embellish their material — including educational and archival videos, split-screens, slow-motion, time-lapse footage, and lingering close-ups of needles and money — are a bit too self-consciously stylish for their own good. Nonetheless, their film captures the recurring nightmare of substance abuse, which makes enduring the unthinkable (homelessness, prostitution, crime, death) an inevitable facet of one’s day-to-day. In the face of such degradation and desperation, it’s no wonder that Frankie and Allie find themselves struggling to not only stay on the straight and narrow, but to continue doing work that, as “American Relapse” suggests, leads to little positive change.