Recovery Boys offers a sober and unflinching glimpse into the heart of America’s opioid epidemic, following four young men for 18 months as they navigate recovery on a farm in West Virginia.
According to some relevant factoids deployed at the end of Netflix’s new original documentary, 90% of Americans who need help recovering from drug addiction don’t get it. Recovery Boys charts the journeys of four who do. Followed by a documentary crew for 18 months, the quartet, all from the desolate mining colony of Morgantown, West Virginia, attempt to navigate the pulsing arteries in the pockmarked heart of America’s opioid epidemic.
The most likable and tragic is Jeff. Thumbing through family photos, he nonchalantly narrates one horrible loss after another; his father was crushed by a tree in a logging yard, his mother went out for a drink and never came home, his friend overdosed, his sister is on the run from the law. He’s a felon and an addict and a father to two young girls. If you wrote it, you’d be accused of laying it on too thick.
By his own admission, Jeff doesn’t know anyone who’s sober. But that’s back home; at Jacob’s Ladder, a rehab facility just outside of Aurora, West Virginia, he’s joined by Rush, a self-confessed expert in feigning recovery in similar programs; Adam, who funded his habits mostly through pinching his old grandmother’s savings; and Ryan, an oddly introspective and thoughtful young man who quotes from books and ponders the nature of love.
Jacob’s Ladder is administered by Dr. Kevin Blankenship, who built the program essentially by hand after his own son’s opioid addiction. The facility is built on a farm, and part of the therapy is tending to it. Oddly for the rural American South and for the subject of recovery, which is often dominated by at least partly spiritual programs like the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (once described by Kurt Vonnegut as, alongside jazz, one of humanity’s finest inventions), there is scarcely a mention of God in Recovery Boys – the program’s name notwithstanding. Valued on the farm are hard work and dedication and a sobering insistence that feeding baby lambs bottles of milk is only a “mini-vacation from the chaos of life”.
The second half of Recovery Boys makes that point, often heartbreakingly. Six months of sobriety under the watchful supervision of caring, saintly counselors is one thing, but what are you going to do for the rest of your life? There’s aftercare and a sober-living house built right next door and jobs at the local coal mine, but what then? What next week, next month, next year, when you’re still living under the same roof as three other grown men? Is that Spartan, monkish life sustainable?
The strongest point of Recovery Boys is the acknowledgment that the path to the greatest temptations winds through life’s most mundane realities. Boredom. Routine. Responsibility. Jeff’s parole officer won’t let him leave his hometown. A three-time felon can’t get a job, so how else does a three-time felon put food on the table other than becoming a four-time felon? The realities of addiction and abuse are unglamorous, but not unsympathetic. The titular Recovery Boys aren’t looking for sympathy, of course. They mostly hate the idea; feel unworthy of it. In the Bible, Jacob’s Ladder extended to the heavens. In West Virginia, it descends into the pits of personal despair, offering one rung, one day, at a time. It’s easy to appreciate the view at the top. So few of us ever look down.