We've had no shortage of opioid epidemic-related movies and TV to watch in recent years, and now famed Harry Potter director David Yates puts Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O'Hara, Andy Garcia and Brian d'Arcy James at the centre of this drug crisis with Pain Hustlers.
Where to watch Pain Hustlers: Netflix on Oct. 27
Director: David Yates
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O'Hara, Andy Garcia, Brian d'Arcy James, Jay Duplass, Chloe Coleman
Runtime: 122 minutes
In Pain Hustlers (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival), we first meet Liza Drake (Blunt) in Florida in 2011, a single mom to her daughter who suffers from epilepsy, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). At the beginning of the film, Phoebe gets in trouble at school after a little arson incident, but her doctor stresses to Liza that Phoebe needs a stable environment to support her health.
That's not really in the cards for Liza and Phoebe who are financially struggling and end up living in a noisy cheap motel.
Needless to say, Liza has a sense of desperation to find a job that will allow her to support her daughter. While working at a strip club, Liza meets Pete Brenner (Evans). Shortly after their meeting, with Pete adding a few fibs her Liza's resume, Liza finds herself hustling at a opioid startup, pushing a fentanyl spray to doctors with great success, in terms of her financial reward.
'It's about empathy'
While Pain Hustlers certainly has the same beats to similar films and shows of the past, there is a really appealing focus on three generations of women in Liza's family. Her whimsical and slightly erratic mother, played by Catherine O'Hara (who actually ends up working at the drug company with her daughter), Liza and then Phoebe, all facing the struggle to survive financially.
"For me, it was probably the the most accessible way into this world," Yates told Yahoo Canada. "I wanted to go into it relating to people I could understand and appreciate. For me, it's about empathy."
"I was brought up by a single mum in the north of England. My dad was away a lot, he went to sea. So he would come come home occasionally, but predominantly it was me and my mum. I always admired my mum just carrying everything for all of us. I said to Lawrence [Grey] and Wells [Tower], our writer, really early on, I'd love to make a film about a single mum, because I kind of had one. So in that sense, it felt to me a really interesting way into this world and this story."
For Canadian producer Lawrence Grey, having Liza as the focal point of the story speaks to what "villainy" really looks like in the context of the opioid crisis.
"You start with this very broad brush of the opioid crisis and you think of the sort of villainy associated with that, but then as we interviewed a lot of people and got deep into the world, you realize villainy in the real world is someone in an office trying to pay their mortgage," Grey said. "What's the larger truth to that struggle?"
"A lot of these films portray somebody who just wants to get rich and we're along for that journey. But it became much more interesting to find a character who is more like us. Someone who wants their life to matter, who wants to do something meaningful. Who knows they have talents and skills that aren't being appreciated, who knows that they have more to give and knows that they have this intelligence, and ability."
'Give them a good time while you're at it'
While there's a very serious and severe message behind Pain Hustlers, this film also has a particularly bright and vibrant aesthetic.
"I love movies and shows with big themes that are dealing with the vegetables and homework and education of the things we want to know, but they're always best when you can go in through entertainment first," Grey said. "Let's experience through the debauchery and excess of pharma executives that's just purely entertaining, but a really honest way into this story."
"But then the challenge becomes, once you're in that world, how do you make sure that you're really representing the victims in a way that's honest, that's real, that's respectful. That was something that we took a lot of care to make sure we were doing in the making of the film."
That also extends to the visuals in the movie, including the costumes, all under the guidance of Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood.
"It's a fun energy to have, also when you shoot in a place like fake Florida there's a lot of colour around you in the environment," she explained. "So colour becomes more inclusive, it's something that people actually do wear."
Atwood explained that for Liza's initially phases of the story, many of her clothes were from vintage stores, then things transitioned when she was making a more mid-level salary, moving into the most money Liza makes, where there's a real luxurious association with Liza's life and wardrobe.
Yates added that leading with vibrant entertainment is also a way to reach the biggest audience possible with the subject matter.
"There are many of my friends and colleagues who would naturally watch something about the opioid crisis ... and then I have lots of friends who would just go, 'No, that's the news,'" Yates said. "I think it was important that we were able to bring people in and ... get them caring about some human beings, get them entertained, before we deliver those messages or ideas that underline the story."
"There are so many things in the landscape for people to watch and I always feel, if you're going to ask for two hours of someone's time, ... as well as tell them about something that you feel passionately is wrong about the system, also give them a good time while you're at it."