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Substance abuse and addiction have gotten numerous cinematic treatments, but none quite like Our American Family. The film, co-directed by Hallee Adelman and Sean King O’Grady, provides an extremely intimate look at a specific Philadelphia-area family and how addiction has affected them.
Nicole, the daughter, has overdosed multiple times and done many stints in rehab. The mother of a young daughter, she is living with her parents while making her latest attempt at sobriety as the film begins. One of her brothers has also had his brushes with addiction, while the rest of the family has dealt with years of worry and breaches of trust.
Her family—brothers Chris and Stephen, mother Linda, and stepfather Bryan—try to be supportive, but it is clear that they all have been hurt by her actions in the past. So we get some very raw and uncomfortable scenes, most of them around their kitchen table in Ardmore.
The film is a tough watch, but an essential one.
A brave family
A Philadelphia Film Festival selection last fall, Our American Family had a special screening at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on August 30, with both the co-directors and the entire family in attendance. During the Q&A period, several attendees shared their own personal and family stories of dealing with substance abuse. The film opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 2, 2022, and will debut nationwide on VOD on September 6, both in connection with National Recovery Month. A streaming run will follow on AMC+.
Adelman, the co-director, told me in an interview that the project originated when she was working on a novel about a pair of siblings in which one was fighting addiction. Linda, the mother of the family, heard about the book project and suggested Adelman speak to her daughter and son.
“After meeting her children, the family and I remained close,” Adelman said. “I was part of the community that wanted to see their family do well. We never thought we’d make a documentary together. Eight years after we met, Nicole came to me and said, ‘There’s a reason why I’m still alive.’ She and her family wanted to help others who struggled. The documentary was born out of their deep desire to show the ‘nitty gritty’ of a family’s journey and to get rid of stigma related to addiction. I am honored to know such a brave family.”
I asked Adelman whether she believes the documentary project has helped Nicole in her fight for sobriety.
“I am not an expert and could not know for sure,” she said. "But I know that the camera made Nicole and the family feel seen. Linda expressed that it meant something that people cared enough to capture her and her family about such an important topic.
“She was tired of being surrounded by a disease that often lived in silence. Stephen and Nicole expressed that they looked forward to the film crew coming. I often wonder if the camera’s mere presence served as a mirror for them to see themselves and reflect on their words and actions and interactions more. Either way, I know it was not the camera alone. This family, as evidenced in the film, fought hard to find success and [banded] together to lift one another as they worked toward healing deep wounds.”
A Philadelphia movie
Our American Family is a very, very Philadelphia movie, with a true sense of place. The subjects all speak with distinct local accents. We see the family at the Philadelphia Zoo and the Franklin Institute, and watching Eagles games.
“Most of the film family and I were born and raised in Philadelphia. We love the city’s sports, landmarks, and traditions. It was natural for us to film at places like the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Zoo, and to represent our Philly sports teams,” Adelman said. “My co-director, Sean King O’Grady, is from Detroit. I think all together we organically combined the sense of home our city offers with Sean’s sense of wonder surrounding Philadelphia. I will add that he now frequently uses the term ‘jawn.’”
Leaving room for other families
A few different films and shows have used “American Family” in their titles before, most notably An American Family, the landmark 1973 series that aired on PBS, and utilized a cinéma vérité style similar to that of Our American Family.
While Adelman said the similar titles weren’t intentional, "we were really excited that our story could give a nod to An American Family as that docu-series was groundbreaking in the way that it provided an unusually zoomed-in, vérité lens of the life of another, extremely brave family,” she said.
The title, Adelman said, “was both a statement that this story could come from any family in America today, while at the same time saying this is this one special family’s experience. We wanted to start the title with the word ‘our’ in efforts to leave room for the many families in our country and around the world whose experience could be both similar and/or different.”
The director added that, like any other documentary, the filmmakers did not know how things would turn out for their subjects.
“Sean and I knew that we were going to honor this family and had no intention of making a film that sensationalized addiction,” she said. “We agreed that if nothing else, the film would show Nicole’s daughter and all the viewers just how hard Nicole and all individuals who struggle, have to work in order to find sobriety and combat stigma. We wanted families, who have the legacy of generational addiction, to be humanized and recognized for their many strengths and their hard work.”
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