Film Review: Off Label

Important, hard-hitting documentary about the pharmaceutical industry, its greed and the serious human havoc it wreaks.

When Elizabeth Wurtzel gave the title Prozac Nation to her 1994 book, I wonder if even she knew how very prescient she was. America today has become a nation of voracious pill-poppers, with those little capsules so generously prescribed by doctors meant to give relief from anxiety, bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders, PTSD, anger management and just about every psychological affliction known to man—with depression, of course, being the number-one target.

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s documentary Off Label is a probing dissection of the pharmaceutical industry that gets at the human heart of the matter. Via interviews with a number of people who have been seriously affected by prescription drugs, the whole industry here emerges as little more than a horrendously venal and heartless business which offers desperately unhappy folk a variety of sometimes dangerous placebos in bright, happy colors with names like Golden Glitter, Pink Flamingo, Cotton Candy and Mint Julep. The filmmakers focus on individuals who choose to become human guinea pigs for drug testing. We meet an Asian man and black man whose experiences, while sad, have been very different, with the former making a lifestyle out of participating in drug trials (and creating balloon toys on the street), while the latter turns to his Muslim faith to help get him through the myriad physical afflictions he suffers from as a result of the drugs he tested while in prison. The happiest person we meet in the film is a young slacker who—probably literally—would rather die than work nine to five and blithely undergoes the tests to pay for his big, rustic outdoor wedding (which makes one question the varying degrees of nonconformity).

At least these three are survivors, which was not the case with one young man, Dan Weiss. His mother, Mary, gives a bloodcurdling account of his gruesome suicide after enrolling in an anti-depressant study in which he was coerced to remain. One of the film’s very few bright spots is the revelation that, due to her efforts, Dan’s Law was passed in 2009, prohibiting people under state civil commitment from participating in psychiatric clinical drug trials while the order is in effect. (It allows a patient to participate if the treating psychiatrist submits an affidavit citing its benefit to the person. However, the treating psychiatrist must not be the psychiatrist conducting the drug trial.)

Then there’s the 22-year-old former army medic who suffered from intense PTSD after being involved in the prison horrors of Abu Ghraib. He gives a chilling account of the inefficacy of V.A. treatment, with its lack of regular doctors for patients and the random prescribing of the same unsuccessful drugs over and over. To underline his trauma, the filmmakers include some horrific images of the war he experienced; the chilling sight of dismembered bodies is something you never see on the six o’clock news. This soldier describes how meeting with other veterans like him, who now strongly oppose war in the Middle East, are far more helpful to him than any army doctor or pill.

I wish the filmmakers had focused a bit more on alternative therapies. Surely, any and all forms of drug-free self-medication are in themselves worthy of an entire movie.