Column: In the documentary ‘Our American Family,’ addiction is in the blood

The boisterous clan featured in the new documentary “Our American Family” is a true reflection of Our Complicated Country in all its ragged glory.

The Geraghty-Caltabiano family — mother Linda Geraghty; her second husband, Ryan Geraghty; and Nicole Caltabiano, Stephen Caltabiano and Chris Caltabiano Jr., Linda’s adult children from her first marriage — live just outside of Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States. They talk sports at the dinner table, use Google to prove their points during arguments and eat a lot of take-out.

And like millions of their fellow Americans, they are dealing with the legacy of addiction.

Directed and produced by Hallee Adelman and Sean King O’Grady, “Our American Family” — which streams on AMC+ starting today and airs on the Sundance Channel on Oct. 23 — looks at the country’s crushing opioid crisis through the intimate lens of one fractured family. There are no on-screen statistics or interviews with experts. It’s just an extremely close look at people who love each other doing the best they can with the traumatic, frustrating and heartbreaking hand they have been dealt with.

“I believe that I was an addict from birth,” Nicole says in the opening of the film. “I’ve lost years. I have no idea who I am.”

As we will soon find out, Nicole — a single mom in her late 20s — is a chronic over-dramatizer and self-admitted pot-stirrer. But she isn’t overstating the depth of her drug problems or the toll they have taken on her and on a family steeped in addiction.

Linda’s mother struggled with anorexia, and the household was forever in the grip of her disease. Linda’s first husband — Nicole, Chris and Stephen’s father — was an abusive addict. Chris picked up Nicole’s heroin habit, but while he managed to kick it, Nicole has mostly specialized in relapsing.

When we meet her, Nicole is back in rehab after overdosing in front of her young daughter. This is her 17th stab at sobriety, and no one is feeling particularly optimistic.

“She’s living in hell. What if she had cancer?” Linda asks Bryan, who is becoming increasingly fed up with Nicole, even as Linda is becoming increasingly adamant that the troops rally around her.

“People with cancer don’t ruin your daily life,” Bryan says. “They don’t go through your wallet while you’re sleeping. They don’t forge checks.”

He’s got a point there, but so does Linda. And that is the great strength of “Our American Family.” Under the filmmakers’ unwavering, nonjudgmental eyes, everyone has a chance to speak their respective truths. The process is messy and loud, but it’s also illuminating.

As a former addict, Chris resents Nicole for her endless supply of second chances. He is also the only one who really understands what she’s going through.

Linda is tired of saving Nicole, but as a mother, she has to keep believing that Nicole is capable of being saved. Bryan is sick of the drama, but he cares too much about the players to walk away.

And as you watch Nicole struggle with the cycle of doubt, fear and shame that usually ends with a return to rehab, you understand why her embattled family is in it for the long haul. They love this smart, funny, impossible woman, and they hope she will learn how to love herself enough to stay alive.

While the lack of outside voices makes for a very intense and claustrophobic 87 minutes, “Our American Family” is an absorbing, nuanced look at a thorny problem that defies any pat solutions. It doesn’t pretend to have answers, but it will help you appreciate the enormousness of the challenge in human terms.

“’Can you just stop doing heroin, please? Can you get a job and take care of your kid?’” Chris says to Linda and Bryan in a rant meant for Nicole. “That’s all anyone asks.”

Meanwhile, Nicole is trying to take things one day at a time while also knowing that each day will probably be its own fresh hell, and how do you stay sober knowing that?

Dealing with addiction means dealing with tricky brain wiring, unhelpful genetics, confounding bureaucracies and heavy emotional baggage. What works for one addict doesn’t work for another. What hasn’t worked on one addict the first 16 times might just work on the 17th, and you might never know why.

That’s the pain of it. And the hope.

“I just every day make a decision that I’m not going to drink or use,” Nicole says near the end of the film. “Never give up. I was a lost cause, and the greatest people, the strongest people rise out of nothing.”

“Our American Family” begins streaming on AMC+ today, and it airs on the Sundance Channel on Oct. 23 at 10:30 pm It is also available on demand.


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