MRR Review: "Off Label"

Photo Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

MRR Review: "Off Label"

Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 80 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2013
Directed by: Donal Mosher, Michael Palmieri
Genre: Documentary/Drama/History

"Off Label" is a documentary that aims to show how drugs have both helped and hurt Americans. The filmmakers sought to accomplish this by interviewing eight different people who have each been touched, some in very different ways, by the huge pharmaceutical companies that dominate the health-care landscape. First is a young soldier who was given the wrong drugs to try and help him with the post-traumatic stress disorder that he suffered as a result being stationed at Abu Ghraib, a work assignment that still gives him nightmares. He has a hard time adjusting to life back home, and the drugs that were supposed to cure him have done nothing of the sort.

Then there's the former pharmaceutical rep who used to peddle his company's drugs to the masses, touting them as an easy way to cure just about everything. He seems well adjusted in comparison to the middle-aged bipolar woman who lives in a Bigfoot museum and seems to be completely overwhelmed each day by the time she wakes up. This is in no small part due to the fact that she has a massive daily intake of over twenty medications.

Also featured are several medical guinea pigs who voluntarily sign up to try experimental drugs knowing that they are at risk for some bad side effects. One couple gets paid handsomely for these drug trials, so they are using the money to save up for their impending wedding. Another guinea pig was forced into a drug trail when he was in jail and still suffers the ill effects. Finally, in what is by far the most tragic of all the stories in the film, a woman tries to get the laws regarding clinical trials to be reformed in order to save more lives. She recounts the story of her young son, whom she put into a drug trail for antidepressants. While still trying the experimental drug, the young man committed suicide.

Many documentaries like "Off Label" try to get the audience on the side of the people who are the focus of the film. In the case of the test subjects, it is easy to root for them in the hope that they recover from their illnesses. Despite this, "Off Label" doesn't seem to be trying to curry favor with the audience or to get viewers on one side or the other. Instead, the film presents straight facts in a way that seems almost clinical in an effort to make people think about drugs and the pharmaceutical industry long after the movie is over. It works, because nobody who sees "Off Label" is likely to take any kind of prescription drug again without at least thinking about this documentary, even if it is in passing. In fact, even seemingly harmless over-the-counter drugs may become a bit suspect to those who have watched "Off Label."

This antiseptic approach to documentary filmmaking is in direct contrast to "October Country," the previous film from directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri. In "October Country," the duo explores the troubled life of Mosher's family in a rural area of the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York. It is a raw, emotional film that shows the darker side of each individual. In "Off Label," Mosher and Palmieri take a very unemotional journey, which really works in the film's favor. The film draws its focus away from how these eight interviewees are suffering to put that focus instead on the drug industry that made them suffer. The new approach ensures that the message of the film doesn't get muddled, and Mosher and Palmieri pull it off perfectly.

Although the drug industry is not painted in the best light in "Off Label," Mosher and Palmieri stop short of telling the audience not to take drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is a multibillion dollar business, and for good reason. For every person like the ones in the film who suffer because of drugs, many more are cured by them or at least have a better quality of life. Mosher and Palmieri don't seek to put an end to the industry but instead seem to be calling for a kinder, gentler industry and for Americans to stop expecting a pill to cure everything that ails them. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but until then, "Off Label" provides good food, or medicine, for thought.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5