Review: ‘Uprooting Addiction,’ starring Dr. Gabor Maté, Hope Payson, Daryl McGraw, Rob Funkauser, Kaytlin Coon, Mark Jenkins and Chuck Bascetta

May 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kaytlin Coon (center) and Pete Volkmann (far right) in “Uprooting Addiction” (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

“Uprooting Addiction”

Directed by Tory Estern Jadow

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and New York state, the documentary “Uprooting Addiciton” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing how childhood traumas are linked to addictions, specifically drug and alcohol addcitions.

Culture Clash: The addiction experts and people in addiction recovery say that addiction treatments are not effective unless these addicts in recovery addresses these traumas.

Culture Audience: “Uprooting Addiction” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that address addiction issues, but this documentary doesn’t reveal anything new and it’s too unfocused to leave much of an impact.

Mark Jenkins (third from left) and Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Center workers in “Uprooting Addiction” (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

Even though it has good intentions, the documentary “Uprooting Addiction” takes a simple concept (treating substance addiction requires confronting childhood trauma) and squanders it by veering off-subject too many times. The movie is a little too limited in its scope, because it’s advertised as a documentary about the drug addicition epidemic in the U.S., but “Uprooting Addiction” only covers programs in Connecticut and New York state. “Uprooting Addiction” is only 64 minutes long, but viewers will learn more about addiction and recovery by watching any episode of “Intervention.” (The epilogue and end credits of “Uprooting Addiction” have a song from Darlingside called “Hold Your Head Up High,” which is the type of folksy acoustic guitar music with a male singer that’s very similar to The Davenports song “Five Steps,” which can be heard during the epiologue and end credits for “Intervention.”)

Directed by Tory Estern Jadow, “Uprooting Addiction” has the expected mix of interviews with licensed addiction experts and people in recovery. Some of the experts are also recovering addicts. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new that is said about addiction that hasn’t already been said in a docuseries such as “Intervention” or in other documentary films about people who get treatment for drug addiction.

“Uprooting Addiction” begins with Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known addiction specialist, making this comment: “All addictions are rooted in trauma. I didn’t say that all traumatized persons will be addicted. But all addicted people are traumatized, whether they realize it or not.” You know what’s coming next: Footage of people in group therapy and in individual interviews telling their sob stories from their childhood.

And that’s expected, because it’s part of this movie’s theme: Addicts can’t fully recover unless they confront and treat any past trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. That trauma almost always goes all the way back to their childhoods. The problem with “Uprooting Addiction” is that it gets distracted from this theme and has footage that really didn’t need to be in the documentary if better editing choices were made.

For example, one of the people interviewed is Mark Jenkins, the founder of the Connecticut non-profit group Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coaltion. Jenkins, who says he’s a recovering addict, describes his job this way: “It is my obligation to reduce the amount of harm [addicts] cause themselves and the community as the result of illicit drug use.” The documentary shows Jenkins and some of the coalition workers putting together Naloxone kits that include narcan (which counteracts the effects of narcotics) and candy.

Later, in the documentary, Jenkins says of Connecticut: “We’re in a state rich in services. But connecting people to those services?” His voice then trails off. This is where the documentary should have actually shown how Jenkins and other people in their group try to connect people with these services. Instead, all viewers get is footage of him and some people sitting at a table and stuffing plastic bags for Naloxone kits. The documentary doesn’t even show where these kits ended up.

A pharmacist named Joe Petricone of Torrington, Connecticut-based Petricone Pharmacy (which has been in his family for generations) says in a documentary interview: “We’re trying hard to get [narcan] into as many hands as possible.” What hands and how? The filmmakers of this documentary couldn’t grasp the concept of “show, don’t tell.”

There’s a lot of people in the documentary talking about what they do for community outreach in fighting addiction, but not enough footage showing them actually doing what they say they do, with real people who need the help. There’s a lot of talk in this documentary about how childhood trauma can lead to addiction. And yet, not once does this documentary show anyone reaching out to at-risk children to try to prevent them from becoming future addicts.

In another part of the documentary, Pete Volkmann, the police chief of Chatham, New York, is interviewed about how the city’s police department handles addiction in the community. Volkmann, who identifies himself as a recovering alcoholic, says the opiod epidemic is Chatham’s biggest problem. He also says that if drug addicts walk into the police station and ask for help, they are immediately treated as sick people, not criminals, and the best effort is made to get them into rehab as soon as possible.

Volkmann also says that he co-founded a Community Angels program of volunteers to help the police department with this responsibility. The volunteers interact with the addicts, who might be leery of dealing with cops, because the volunteers take away what Volkmann calls the “stigma” of being around cops. It’s a very rosy picture of how a police department treats a city’s drug problem.

But then, the documentary does something tacky and questionable by having Volkmann re-enact what it would be like if an addict walked into his office. The re-enactmant has a young man called “Joe” knock on Volkmann’s door, as if anyone can walk into this police chief’s office. The “addict” (who could be real addict or an actor; the documentary doesn’t say) sits down and talks to Volkmann, as if it’s just a friendly neighbor chat.

Kaytlin Coon, who’s identified in the documentary as a recovering addict and one of the city’s Angel volunteers, then simulates talking to this visitor. It’s all very stiff and awkward-looking. This is a documentary, not an acting workshop. And this re-enactment cheapens the movie’s message. Instead of re-eacting this scenario, the filmmakers should have shown a real scenario.

In fact, there’s hardly anything in the documentary that shows any real outreach to addicts who are still in the throes of addiction. Staged-looking group therapy meetings with self-identified “sober” people don’t count, because these are people who’ve already gotten help for their addictions. The documentary includes footage of an International Overdose Awareness Vigil in Torrington, Connecticut. But these types of vigils are more about being memorials to dead addicts and platforms to give speechs, rather than being community outreach events so addicts can get the help that they need.

A recovering addict named Daryl McGraw visits a halfway house/sober living place for men called Friendship House in New London, Connecticut. McGraw, who calls Friendship House his “brainchild,” is shown briefly (about two minutes) giving a friendly pep talk to some of the residents, including a new resident named Benji. The documentary never shows or mentions what happened to any of these residents after McGraw’s visit.

A recovering addict/alcoholic named Chuck Bascetta, who is a recovery sports specialist, is shown briefly interviewing another recovering addict at Community Mental Health Affiliates in New Britain, Connecticut. The interview footage is only about 30 seconds. And it’s not even an in-depth interview because all the questions have “yes” or “no” answers. The addict, who appears to be in his late 50s/early 60s, nods and says “yes” whenever Bascetta asks leading questions about if the addict has been able to stay clean and sober.

Any observant viewer can see that the addict, who is shifty-eyed and looks zonked out on something, isn’t entirely convincing in his claim that he’s clean and sober. And really, unless a drug test is done on the spot, addicts can’t really prove their sobriety when they’re in these counseling sessions. Drug tests aren’t even completely fool-proof, since the test results can be manipulated if someone else’s urine is used.

Maria Coutant Skinner, who is the executive director of the McCall Center for Behavioral Health (a rehab center in Torrington, Connecticut), says in an interview that she co-founded the Lichtfield County Opiate Task Force. But once again, the documentary just shows some people talking in a group, not going out in the community and actually doing the necessary work that a task force is supposed to do. As far as this documentary is concerned, you just mainly need to show people talking in meetings if you’re doing a documentary about treating drug addiction, even though any reasonable person knows that treating drug addiction is more than just talking about it.

Trauma and addiction specialist Hope Payson, who’s also a recovering addict, explains the need to address past trauma in addiction recovery: “If we understand the underlying reasons why someone would seek out dangerous substances to begin with, then we have a possible solution.” Payson mentions that her trauma includes having a brother who died from drug addiction.

The documentary then uses archival footage of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris giving a 2014 TEDMED talk in San Francisco. In the talk, Burke Harris explains the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. It’s briefly mentioned that 17,000 people participated in the ACE Study “over time,” but the time period is not identified in the documentary. The purpose of the ACE Study is to determine if childhood abuse, neglect and trauma are directly linked to later-life outcomes such as addiction.

This ACE Study is the basis of a group therapy session, led by Payson, that’s shown in the documentary. An illustration of a tree is displayed in the room. At the roots of the tree, the group participants stick pieces of adhesive paper with words describing any childhood trauma they experienced and how it made them feel. The ACE Study identifies 10 types of childhood trauma that are considered the roots of addiction: emotional/mental abuse; physical abuse; sexual abuse; lack of emotional support from family members; physical neglect; a household member addicted to drugs or alcohol; a household member with mental illness; a household member who’s been incarcerated; parental divorce/separation; and domestic violence against a parent/guardian.

These 10 types of childhood trauma determine a person’s ACE Score. Each type of trauma is given a “1” score if someone experienced that trauma before reaching the age of 18. Those who endorse the ACE Study believe that the higher the ACE score, the more likely someone will become an addict. In the documentary, this unsourced statistic is shown: “Individuals with an ACE score of 4 or more are 10 times more likely to become IV drug users than someone with a score of zero.”

The problem with this statistic, because it’s unsourced, is that viewers have no idea what group of people were tested, how many were tested, and for how long, in order to come to this conclusion. In fact, all of the statistics in the documentary are unsourced, which lowers this documentary’s credibility. A lot of this documentary looks very amateurish in all aspects of production and post-production. The cinematography has some shaky camera work and random zooms in and out, as if someone is still fiddling around with the camera and figuring out how to use it.

And the editing is muddled with unnecessary and off-topic distractions. There’s a segment where McGraw, who’s an ex-con, is shown giving a speech to a group of people affiliated with the Bridgeport, Connecticut-based non-profit group Bridge House, which counsels adults with mental illnesses. In the speech, McGraw talks about a job interview experience he had after he got out of prison. It’s an interesting anecdote, but it doesn’t really belong in this documentary. If this documentary was about life after prison, then this segment would have worked better.

Coon is shown interviewed with her mother Donna, who talks about her bipolar son Jordan, who died of a drug overdose. Donna says, “He was a a sweet kid. He self-medicated … I feel guilty because I used to think life would be so much easier without him. It’s not.”

It’s a tragic family story, but it offers no reflection on what the family learned from this experience that could help other families going through the same things. Coon talks about how Jordan used to physically abuse her when they were kids, but that’s about the extent of what she reveals of any past trauma from her childhood.

Other recovering addicts interviewed in the documentary include Rob Funkhauser, an opioid addict who says that he was sexually abused as a child and had an alcoholic mother and an emotionally abusive father. Kelvin Young, an ex-con, talks about his childhood feeling like an inadequate misfit in a strict and religious household, where he says that his parents paid more attention to his older brothers who had more achievements.

McGraw, whose father abandoned the family, says that he witnessed and experienced a lot of violence inside and outside his single-parent household. Bascetta, who was the eighth of 10 kids in his family, says that his childhood was chaotic, and he experienced sexual abuse. Ryan Bailey, a recovering heroin addict, describes his childhood as bouncing around from relative to relative and having a mentally ill, drug-addicted mother who made him feel unloved because she gave him up to be raised by other people.

Epilogues at the end of “Uprooting Addiction” mention the ACE scores and therapy used by the documentary’s featured recovering addicts. On a scale of 1 to 10, Coon’s ACE score was 3; Bascetta and Funkhauser scored 4 on their ACE scores; Young and McGraw scored 5; and Bailey scored 9. All of the addicts have a recovery process that includes some type of group therapy.

The documentary mentions Eye Movement Desensitizaton and Reprocessing (EDMR) therapy, which uses eye movements to overcome trauma and anxiety. Bascetta is a big advocate of EDMR therapy, which he credits with getting rid of his cravings for drugs. Unfortunately for this documentary, the EDMR therapy is one of many examples of things that people talk about but the documentary doesn’t show. It wouldn’t have been that hard for the documentary to show actual EDMR therapy sessions and have willing volunteers track and report how the therapy worked for them.

“Uprooting Addiction” gives minimal mention of America’s racial disparities on which addicts get access to the best treatment and are less likely to be sentenced to prison for drug posesssion. That mention is literally reduced to a soundbite. Jenkins comments on the opioid epidemic: “This didn’t become an epidemic until white people started dying.”

A good documentary would have further explored those issues, but “Uprooting Addiction” doesn’t. However, observant viewers will notice that the two African American addicts from the group sessions who are interviewed (Young and McGraw) both spent time in prison, which they talk about in the documentary. Meanwhile, Funkhauser (who is white) practically brags that he never had a problem getting doctors to write any illegal prescriptions for him, as long has he looked like a businessman. The white drug addicts in the documentary do not talk about being in prison, because they give the impression they never went to prison as a result of their drug addiction.

The filmmakers obviously never bothered to ask Young and McGraw to comment on how their race might have affected how their drug addiction was treated by “the system.” While Chatham Police Chief Volkmann talks about being a police chief who’s willing to help drug addicts go to rehab instead of prison, what the “Uprooting Addiction” documentary doesn’t mention is that Chatham has a population that is 90% white, according to Data USA. Talk to any police chief in a U.S. city with a population that’s more than 30% black or Latino, and it’s highly unlkely that the police chiefs would be so accommodating and friendly to drug addicts in those cities. The statistics for drug arrests in those cities say a lot.

And that’s one of the biggest flaws of “Uprooting Addiction.” It’s a very superficial documentary that barely scratches the surface of the real problems of treating drug addiction. Talking about your childhood in group therapy sessions is one thing. But that doesn’t help all the addicts who can’t even get access to rehab or therapy in the first place, because they’re not in the right income bracket or because they’re a certain race and therefore are more likely to be incarcerated for having a drug addiction. And because “Uprooting Addiction” limits its focus to just two states to talk about a nationwide epidemic, this myopia is just one of many of this film’s credbility problems.

First Run Features released “Uprooting Addiction” on digital and VOD on April 6, 2021.