Addiction is a ravenous, all-consuming monster. Fictional narratives have explored this, of course, but the documentary Our American Family brings home this unfiltered truth with painful honesty. In gaining access to one Philadelphia-area family for roughly a year, directors Hallee Adelman and Sean King O’Grady show how addiction consumes not just one person’s life but their loved ones, too.
Over family dinners, discussions, and pensive moments, we see needs minimized. Plans put on the back burner. Conversations that erupt into arguments as one person’s crisis monopolizes nearly every moment, sowing fatigue and resentment.
Released in time for National Recovery Month, Our American Family ostensibly examines generational substance abuse, but its narrative focus is Nicole Caltabiano, who started using drugs at nineteen, soon after discovering her father getting high. Her parents divorced, but she and her brother Chris followed their father’s path, both becoming addicted to heroin.
Chris got clean but still smokes cigarettes and marijuana, wondering why Nicole, now twenty-nine, can’t also clean up her act. She’s been through rehab more than a dozen times, most recently overdosing while living a few blocks from her mother. Linda, and stepfather.
When the film begins, the couple has custody of Nicole’s two-year-old daughter, Giovanna, while Nicole navigates a four-to-six-month residential treatment program. Younger brother Stephen, who says he prays for both of them, deals with his siblings capturing most of the family’s attention.
Adelman (a producer on Us Kids and The Social Dilemma) and O’Grady (We Need to Do Something) intersperse fly-on-the-wall observations during the family’s get-togethers with voiceovers from each person, although Nicole’s and her mother’s thoughts dominate. Nicole reflects on her stressors: moving to a new treatment facility, losing a friend to an overdose, questioning why her mom and brothers plan to attend a wedding across the country.
Mostly, Nicole struggles with guilt over what she’s done while on drugs or to gain drugs, thoughts that often have derailed her recovery. In a bittersweet segment, she and a friend from treatment visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum, looking at closeups of brain neurons. Feelings soon overwhelm them as they wonder what damage their addictions have done.
Meanwhile, Linda feels like a failed parent, although she too grew up with trauma. (Our American Family includes a trigger warning for addiction, trauma, and abuse.) Her mother was anorexic—obvious from family photos—and while that was a different disorder than Nicole’s drug abuse, it consumed Linda’s home life. Her father and other relatives downplayed anything that happened to her, even sexual abuse, fearing what would upset her mother.
Bryan, who married Linda when Nicole was eighteen, has never really known his stepdaughter without her addiction. He’s not unkind, but his patience has limits. When Linda asks him to encourage Nicole in her recovery, hopeful that this time is different, he can’t muster the words.
Our American Family punctuates the year with several blowups, unearthing wounds that have barely knit together with plenty of profanity and past recollections. While this is a credit to the trust between the family and the filmmakers, some viewers might find the emotional intensity tough to handle.
Nevertheless, people in similar situations likely will empathize with this family, from their guilt when they think of others who have lost loved ones to their determination to break this cycle for Giovanna’s sake. As Linda notes at one point, “I promised my kids: We all … get out alive.”