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‘Warning: This Drug May Kill You’ review: Documentary highlights tragedy of opioid epidemic

This HBO documentary looks at the spreading opiod epidemic. (Credit: HBO Docs)

THE DOCUMENTARY “Warning: This Drug May Kill You”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Deaths from opioid overdoses — caused by prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, Demerol and codeine, and also heroin — have soared in recent years. The facts: More than 50,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2015, which included deaths from drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin (17,536) and heroin (12,989), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This film — directed by Perri Peltz — profiles four families that have lost either children or a parent to opioid overdose.

MY SAY Most New York TV viewers remember Peltz best during her time (1987-96) as an anchor and reporter for WNBC/4. What they may not know is that she’s had a remarkable second act as a director of HBO documentaries, including 2011’s “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks,” about a cancer survivor who supported a Harlem clinic that helped uninsured patients cover their costs. The title of her second HBO film made it sound like one of those “toasters that kill” fillers we used to see on the local news, but “Puppies Behind Bars” was about four veterans — also felons — who found redemption through a love of dogs.

Peltz is the real deal — a serious news professional who cares about her subjects, and they in turn appear to trust her. The trust of the four families profiled here is not once betrayed: Each is still raw from grief after the loss of a child or mother, as they try to make sense of what happened, or why it happened. But failing that, their words drift off, and viewers then find themselves looking into the void with them. It’s gut-wrenching but also begins to tally the emotional cost for so many other grieving families. By this film’s estimate, that cost is incalculable.

Particularly strong on emotion, “This Drug May Kill You” is less strong on perspective or hard information. It ultimately feels like half a documentary that leaves unanswered many important questions, or simply ignores them altogether. For example, all the families profiled here are white. Does that mean the opioid epidemic has bypassed African-Americans? Another question: Why have doctors and hospitals prescribed these drugs in such abundance, knowing the dangers? Yet another: Does every user of (say) Dilaudid — a particularly powerful opioid, also a widely prescribed one — stand a chance of becoming addicted? Only a few of them do? If so, why and who?

Nevertheless, these profiles are so powerful that they demand answers, or at the very least demand asking for them. Maybe Peltz’s next film?

BOTTOM LINE Moving film on the tragedy of the opioid epidemic — but it’s also lacking in vitally needed perspective, and information.

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