‘Recovery Boys’ documentary captures heartbreak of opioid crisis

Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Netflix original documentary Recovery Boys covers the full spectrum of opioid rehabilitation efforts four four drug-addicted men and their path to sobriety. Easily-accessible on the streaming service – and thankfully so – the heartbreaking documentary will resonate with the mass audience it deserves. (BKP: 4.5/5)

“One week clean.”

“Then a whole lifetime.”

Expanding on the themes of her Oscar-nominated short Heroin(e), Sheldon documents the lives of four men entering rehab at a rural West Virginia farm. Jacob’s Ladder, as its known, was founded by critical care specialist Dr. Kevin Blankenship – the father of a recovering addict. For 18 months, the film follows them through treatment as they work towards a life of sobriety, strengthening themselves physically (baling hay and feeding livestock) so they can better fight their demons emotionally.

There’s Rush, Adam, Ryan and Jeff, a foursome who detail their difficult journeys in and out of rehab and how the world after prison can leave you hopeless. But is there hope? That’s up to the viewer, who will come at Recovery Boys with their own perspectives and judgments.

The never-seen-or-heard Sheldon, a West-Virginia native who has experience with victims of substance abuse, merely observes the world of this brotherhood, four men who put actual faces to the widespread American opioid crisis. She carefully crafts a story, knowing what would be effective for viewers to see and hear. And on the heels of the buzzy Beautiful Boy trailer release, people clearly need to hear it.

Sheldon captures the recovery process of being addicted to heroin, painkillers and the like by documenting the expected 12-step program and emotionally charged meetings with loved ones. It’s all here and it’s life-affirming.

The raw, moving compilation of stories are full of troubled family histories, parental shortcomings, relapses and painstaking attempts at recovery. What could have been a minutes-long feature on a morning news show is rightfully drawn out, making for a powerful watch, not only for those who have experienced the effects of drug use, but even for those who know little. 

Like any rehabilitation center, the final test is for these addicts, now clean, as they leave the peaceful serenity of the farm setting and graduate back into the nitty, gritty real world. The heartbreak comes in the realization that these rehabilitation efforts do not work for everyone – the idea that you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. It’s an age-old philosophy, and one that never gets easier. But it’s certainly worth the try.

Recovery Boys is available to stream on Netflix Friday, June 29.

© Brigid K. Presecky (6/29/18) FF2 Media

Photos courtesy of Netflix

Q: Does Recovery Boys pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?


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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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