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The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Elizabeth Wellington

Elizabeth Wellington: ‘Our American Family’ documents one woman’s painful opioid recovery

PHILADELPHIA — "Our American Family," a documentary about an Ardmore woman’s recovery from opioid addiction, premiered on AMC+ last week.

The 87-minute film, produced by Haverford’s World of HA Productions, follows Nicole, a 28-year-old woman, for a year after she completes her 17th stint in rehab and is on the cusp of starting a new life. She holds down a job for the first time and tries to repair her relationship with her family.

Because Nicole took opioid pills, shot heroin and smoked crack for 16 years, her family is weary. They are tired of the drama and over the lies. They doubt Nicole’s commitment to sobriety and treat her with contempt, especially her younger brother Chris, who also struggles with addiction. Nicole, too, doesn’t trust herself. These family dynamics are painful to watch and there are many times when I wondered if Nicole would manage to stay clean.

She did. Oct. 10 marked Nicole’s fifth year sober.

“I just got tired,” said Nicole, who asked we not use her last name to protect the identity of her young daughter. “And the longer I stayed clean, the more I realized I just didn’t want to get high anymore. I was so very tired.”

"Our American Family" premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2021 where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. It took home an honorable mention for authenticity at last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. "Our American Family" will also be shown on SundanceTV, Oct. 23 at 10:30 p.m. This month’s national rollout coincides with National Substance Abuse Month.

There are plenty of movies, documentaries, and television specials that center on users in the throes of addiction and take us through the horrors of detox. Recovery is covered in quick sequence of montages and then the addict’s post-recovery life is celebrated. "Our American Family" is different.

Hallee Adelman, the film’s co-director and producer, wanted to shine a light on Nicole without criminalizing her. Like all of us, Nicole has a mundane life — she goes shopping, cooks her own meals and mothers her daughter. Detroit-based filmmaker Sean King O’Grady ("We Need to Do Something," 2021) was the co-director and producer on the project.

“We were trying to humanize Nicole’s struggle,” Adelman said. “This family opened the doors to their homes at a time when most people would close their doors and deal with the hard work of recovery in private.”

Nicole is grateful.

“So many people go to Kensington and exploit people like me, filming us when we are at our worst,” she said. “Well, we are not a joke.”

Nicole met Adelman through Nicole’s mother, Linda, more than a decade ago. Linda was Adelman’s personal yoga instructor and during sessions, Linda shared her daughter’s story of addiction.

Adelman, a children’s book writer, was in the midst of writing a young adult novel about siblings, one of whom was addicted to drugs. Linda suggested Adelman talk to her kids. The more Adelman got to know Linda’s family, the more she wanted to share their story. “I wanted people to be compassionate towards the families who struggle with addiction,” Adelman said.

The timing was serendipitous. Adelman was serving as an executive producer for several films in the works including the 2020 documentaries "The Social Dilemma" about social media and "Us Kids," about teenagers who survived the 2018 Parkland, Florida, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She was also working as an executive producer on the 2022 Oscar contender for Best Documentary, "Writing With Fire," the story of a newspaper run by women from the Dalit and other underrepresented communities in India.

"Our American Family" was filmed throughout Main Line and Philadelphia from December 2017 through December 2018. When we meet Nicole in the film, she’s two months sober and fresh out of detox. "Our American Family" begins with Nicole breaking the third wall as she gives viewers a tour of Womanspace, an addiction treatment center in Ardmore.

Nicole’s emotions are raw and she’s always on the defensive. Her stepfather doubts she will remain sober and is critical of her choices. A friend overdoses. She has to move to another halfway house before settling in her own apartment. When Linda tells Nicole that she’s taking Nicole’s daughter to Vegas for the child’s third birthday, Nicole loses it and blames her family for her predicament. Tempers flare. The family lobs blame at each other like fireballs of burning shame.

“Seeing that version of who I used to be brings me back to the place that nearly killed me,” said Nicole, one recent evening after work. Nicole has it together now. Her Kim Kardsashian-esque makeup is flawless — even though her products are from Dollar Tree. She looks studious in her Warby Parker glasses, and, she says, she has plans to go to college. “The other side of the coin is that I get to witness in the flesh what hard work and dedication looks like, every time I see myself on screen.”

Nicole is reluctant to talk about her time on the streets, it triggers too many negative feelings. And why should she, she’s not that woman anymore. Linda told me Nicole started using drugs to “satisfy an empty feeling.”

“Nicole comes from a family of addicts,” Linda said, referring to her own mother who suffered from an eating disorder. “She was an addict in the womb.” And since addiction is a family affair, Linda believes, recovery must be, too.

“As long as you are breathing, there is hope,” Nicole said. “I hope anyone watching me recover is able to still see the flame that burns in my soul.”



Columnist Elizabeth Wellington write about gender, race, fashion, culture and wellness for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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