The toll of the opioid crisis is all too easily obscured by its overwhelming numbers: Overdose deaths reached record highs in 2022, killing roughly 115,000 people in the U.S. and Canada. The unprecedented spike is largely due to the prevalence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Battling intense stigma and government inaction, a groundswell of grassroots organizations popped up to provide harm reduction, such as supervised use sites and Narcan training. Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with the current state of American politics, Vancouver, B.C., is leading the charge.
Where excellent mainstream reporting goes a long way towards normalizing harm reduction strategies, the gripping documentary “Love in the the Time of Fentanyl” paints a fuller picture of the people on the front lines. The film offers a visceral firsthand account of the day-to-day work of the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS), a grassroots group of former and current drug users who operate a safe injection site in downtown Vancouver. Each time the film shows the urgent revival of someone experiencing an overdose, we are reminded this is an everyday occurrence for these unsung heroes of the street. Pulsing with candid immediacy, “Love in the Time of Fentanyl” implores the viewer to bear witness to the humanity behind the term “opioid crisis.”
Directed, edited, and produced by Colin Askey (and executive produced by Sean Baker), the film feels respectfully close to its subjects, both in proximity and intimacy. Askey clearly had no trouble finding a host of compelling characters to agree to be on camera, and they seem to have no trouble opening up. They speak of their struggles with addiction and grief with a frank clarity, accustomed as many are to sharing similarly in 12-step meetings. If it’s hard to catch every word under the hubbub and street slang, the meaning is translated through jocular cheers and shared tears.
Emerging as a central figure is Ronnie, a seasoned frontline worker whose long silver-flecked beard and signature hoodie earned him the nickname “Narcan Jesus.” He hovers in frame at every overdose, meeting, and supervised use, masking his sense of urgency with a friendly nonchalance. “I entered as a skeptic,” he says of the strategies in place. “And immediately profoundly was like, this is right, this is just, this is amazing.”
Another brave portrayal is that of Dana, a sweet active user who whistles while he works, finishing his mopping before injecting his neck, contorting his gentle face to find a vein. Askey scores this jarring shot with Dana’s own jaunty rendition of “The Andy Griffith Show” theme song. The next morning he’s back to work, administering Narcan to a patient and calmly talking them down. Dana’s story also adds a hopeful ray of light, when he enters treatment and is eventually able to say he’s 15 days clean while testifying on behalf of OPS.
There is more holistic community healing being done here, too, such as the colorful graffiti murals memorializing lost friends that decorate downtown Vancouver. The characters who filter in and out of OPS headquarters are galvanized by a shared purpose, which keeps them motivated to get clean or occupied enough to stay away from harmful survival work. “Aloneness is a major driver of addiction,” Ronnie explains. “So to create a sense of community and family, to me that’s super exciting.”
The film eschews a journalistic documentary style for a more achievable verité approach, which is initially engaging but leaves something to be desired. While plenty of characters abound, they remain somewhat opaque, lost in the busy work. One is left searching for meaningful narrative arcs, though the film manages to eke one out when Ronnie makes he difficult decision to hang up his hat, citing burnout. We see far too little of the only two women characters, indigenous cook Norma and OPS founder Sarah, for it to feel like a coincidence.
Instead, we’re left with an intriguing fly-on-the-wall experience akin to the feeling of volunteering with OPS for a few days. It’s a valuable lesson, indeed, but not a particularly cinematic one. Still, it’s remarkable in its proximity to an ongoing crisis that very few people know how to handle. “Love in the Time of Fentanyl” begs the viewer to stand up and pay attention.
“Love in the Time of Fentanyl” is currently in theaters. It will air on PBS Independent Lens on Monday, February 13.
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