All 700 of us raised our hands. All of us who had just seen Happy Valley, the documentary about drug abuse in Utah that screened at the LDS Film Festival last night. Filmmaker Ron Williams simply asked during the Q&A if someone close to us had a drug abuse problem. We are mostly Utahns and mostly Mormons and yes, our friends and family members suffer from the blight of drug abuse. It was sobering.
I have a great respect for films and filmmakers using the medium to address serious issues. I saw it two years ago with the sobering film Propensity, reaching out to the suicidal, and last year with Samuel Adams' early-return missionary doc, Returning With Honor (about which I've previously blogged). You can tell the difference between this sort of films and others because the discussion after the festival screenings is not about distribution or film careers but about reaching out to those suffering.
And so I find myself more forgiving of films that have aesthetic problems (as both Propensity and Returning With Honor did). Happy Valley, as a doc, has some real problems, aesthetic and ethical. I want to bring some of them up. But at a certain point it doesn't matter because this film is doing some good.
My son rose early this morning to get to the high school for something. Though tired from the late evening at the festival, I jumped to my feet to have a quick conversation with him before he left. I asked him about drugs at our high school--the same high school where one of my neighbors began his descent into heroin a few years back. That man is just out of rehab. Seven of his classmates are dead from overdoses. Why hadn't I ever talked about this issue with my son? So I'm glad for a movie to prompt me in this way. And I respect the brave film subjects who were so candid about their difficulties.
This film begins as a critique of Utah (Mormon) culture and how the very religion that gives its inhabitants postive family values positively leads them to hide deep problems and indulge in private addictions--especially prescription drug abuse. Shocking statistics are announced throughout the film about Utahns and drug abuse, and part of this film wants to be an expose. Luckily it does not follow that track as vigorously as the down-to-earth and painful stories of various families and individuals victimized by drugs. I'm all for bringing attention to real problems, but the film plays fast and loose with its statistics and their interpretation. For example, as one social scientist explained it to me, the reason that more anti-depressants are prescribed in Utah than anywhere else is that more people are seeking help for mental health issues and not self-medicating through alcohol, etc. That didn't show up in the movie.
Nor was there any acknowledgment whatsoever of the tremendous efforts made both locally and generally by the LDS Church to address addictions of all sorts and to provide social services for their treatment. Not only is the problem addressed frankly and frequently from a spiritual vantage point by church leaders (such as Elder Dallin H. Oaks ' October 2006 General Conference address, "He Heals the Heavy Laden" or the article pointedly addressed to youth in the New Era magazine by former physician Elder Russell M. Nelson, "The Message: Addiction or Freedom"), but the church has taken enormous practical measures to treat the problem (see the church's Addiction Recovery Program and this article about it at Meridian Magazine or this recent Ensign article addressing it, and especially all the addiction recovery support groups listed by the church on its provident living website along with contact info for local LDS Family Services agencies).
As a bishop, I've personally assisted three different heroin addicts and one meth addict in the last couple of years, and this has included providing ecclesiastical and professional counseling, recovery group services, medication, legal assistance, extremely costly rehab treatment, consultations with medical doctors, family interventions and counseling of affected family members, re-employment efforts through the church's Deseret Industries (where drug felons actually do get a second chance to be retrained and rehabilitated) and a whole lot of social support from loving neighbors and ward members (typically to people who never even attend services). This gets paid for through the local fast offering program, not through any government agency. Our church is an imperfect one, but one would be hard pressed to make a case that it has not been extremely organized, active, and successful in both working to prevent addictions and heal them when they happen.
So it was a bit hard for me to watch the cheap shots at Mormons (as though the faith does more to produce addicts than to significanty prevent and meaningfully heal addictions). As someone in the trenches working with people to get to these resources and extremely grateful for an organization that is so committed to helping people, I find it a little glib for these filmmakers to have their subjects describe an active Relief Society member hooked on narcotics or drop casual comments about Mormons needing to look in the mirror more and not through windows at other people. The film's executive producer was much applauded after the film for having engineered interviews at the prison, etc., apparently pulling strings as a bishop himself to arrange these. Being so close to the film, why on earth, I asked myself, wouldn't he at least go on record regarding what the church is actively doing to address these problems?
But the film really doesn't follow up on its initial trajectory of critiquing either the church or Utah culture, and the "Happy Valley" title really is a bad fit. That term is often used to refer specifically to Utah Valley, far more Mormon in its character than the more mixed and cosmopolitan Salt Lake City, but the film subjects were mostly in Salt Lake and obviously included lapsed and non-Mormons. By the end of the film a statement appears that this story could have been about any place, the drug problem being so general, so the "what's in your Jell-O?" tag (and playfully ironic publicity image) come across as a cheap shot to accompany the misleading title.
The film should have given up its social critique pretenses and stuck with its strength, the individual stories of broken families and broken lives and the filmmaker's very positive relatinoship with them. But happily, I think those are the enduring aspects of the film. To his credit, Williams began the project simply by pointing a home movie camera at his suffering ex-wife, and soon a tragic tale unfolds of how his step-daughter, Macall, distanced from her mother, thought shooting up with her would draw them closer. Now Macall is in prison for the negligent homocide of her best friend, Amelia, whose brief experiment with narcotics killed her. The most affecting sequences are those with Amelia's parents--being interviewed by Williams, the step-father of the girl who brought about the death of their own daughter. Williams, breaking documentary tradition of silent observation, urges these parents to forgive. A brave move. They resist, but in the end, they do. In a prison visit scene a guard unlocks the chains that keep Macall in her seat so that a hug can be exchanged along with forgiveness between her best friend's grieving mother and herself. The film works that way, too, unlocking the chains of denial and helping people to be brave enough to own up to these disastrous problems.
So I want to forgive what I see as some ethical lapses in the film. Repairing lives is messy, and everyone of good will is needed in the battle. People should see Happy Valley, forgive its shortcomings and occasional preachiness, then look around their families and neighborhoods and dare to stand up, reach out, and help.