September 30, 2013

Review of Bess O’ Brien’s “The Hungry Heart”

Posted in Events, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 11:57 am by Lund

"For always roaming with a hungry heart..."

“For always roaming with a hungry heart…”

When a 16 year old boy walked in to the office of Dr Fred Holmes, a St. Albans’ Pediatrician, and said that he was addicted to opiates, the doctor admits that he was absolutely clueless and had no idea what to do.  But he knew that he had to do something to treat this young man whom he had known since he was a baby.  And so began Dr. Holmes’ journey into the pervasive, dark and all-consuming world of opiate addiction.  He began to treat this young man and many others like him with the controversial drug Suboxone.  Bess O’ Brien’s film “The Hungry Heart”, which debuted at the Flynn Theater in Burlington this past Friday, documents a year in the life of Dr Holmes and his addict patients at Mousetrap Pediatrics in St Albans.  Set in part against the incongruous backdrop of a colorful doctor’s office filled with toys and seasonal decorations, the film focuses on the very personal stories of these young people and their struggles.

Amongst others, we meet Kyle, the 16 year old whose frank cry for help started the journey for Dr. Holmes, who is in recovery living in a homeless shelter, scared every day that he will use again, Katie who has a traumatic brain injury caused by 27 minutes without oxygen after an overdose, Dustin who stole tools and equipment from his parents’ farm to fund his drug habit and the parents of Tyler who died in a car accident after a night of partying. These are real people and this is their real story.  It’s happening here in Vermont and not just in Franklin County but everywhere.  The conversation is just beginning about how to treat this frightening epidemic and this film serves as an excellent tangible insight into the lives of young addicts.

Dr Fred Holmes is quick to admit that he doesn’t know if Suboxone therapy is the right answer but he knew when he started that he had to do something.  Holmes is an avuncular figure, white haired with kind blue eyes who sits behind his desk, chin in his hand, looking hard into the faces of his young patients.  He is loving and supportive of them but very clear that they must follow the program of constant and correct dosage of the medicine and counseling with the Howard Center or else he will sadly have to drop them from his caseload.  He compliments his patients – “You are a strong person.  You’re doing great.  We’ll do it” and his interactions are peppered with sports references and calling the patients “dude”.  They respond to him.  “I did it to be good for you,” says one patient early in the film, when asked how he managed to stay clean that week.  Between seeing toddlers with ear infections and hugging new babies, Dr Holmes, is dedicated to these young people.  But it is a hard battle, and not necessarily one that he can win.  “I’ve never felt so good in my life,” says one young woman of being high.  “I was waiting for something to make me feel whole,” says another.   It’s not just young people, the film also interviews older people who are in recovery who tell stories of losing everything – their children, their lucrative careers, theirs homes – to their addictions.    There are gasps from the audience as one addict says that she spent $3000 a day to feed her habit.

An important point that is well made in the film is that we have to see drug addiction as an illness, a horrible illness.  There is too much shame and stigma attached to being an addict or to admit that your child is an addict.   The people in the film are often seen slumped over, looking at the ground, wringing their hands.   “It’s not a life,” says one.  “It’s not living.”  Dr Fred Holmes cuts through this shame and sees this as a medical problem that must be treated.   Bob Bick from the Howard Center is interviewed and calls for more treatment to be available and we see scenes of the addicts talking at schools in order to increase prevention efforts.  The solution must come through a combined approach and there is no place for shaming those who are suffering.

The film is stark with iconic scenes of the Vermont in the winter – a closed down drive in, chain link fences, slow motion snow blown across a depressed small town scene, black birds against a white sky.   The photography by Carley Stevens-McLaughlin is particular effective as the camera lingers on faces of the addicts, solemn as they stare into the lens and we hear a sinister languid version of ‘You are my sunshine’ sung by Richie Stearns and Kim Sherwood-Caso.  If anything, the imagery becomes overwhelming as it hits home again and again how alone these people are as the disease takes over their lives.  The back stories that the patients tell are harsh too – 22 foster homes in three years, doing drugs at age 12 with their parents, needing to dull the emotional pain.   But then there is Fred, in his bright, busy office offering a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps.  “He’s a father figure,” says one of his nurses, “he treats the patients with respect, and talks to them, asks them what they need. He’s an amazing man.”  The audience bursts into spontaneous applause.   One of his patients holds up a sign that she has taken from somewhere.  It says ‘Fred’s Kids’.  She makes the doctor read it out loud twice to her.  “I’ve never been anyone’s kid before.”

“It’s an unhappy kind of medicine,” says the doctor as the film comes to an end.  “It rips you up inside.”  This is true of the film too.  It’s an unhappy kind of film and hard to get out of your head after watching it.  Before the closing credits, we see black and white photos of those featured with updates of how they are doing.  The audience claps enthusiastically as we read of years of recovery and reunification with children but the clapping becomes suddenly tentative as we read of continuing homelessness and struggles to keep the addiction at bay.  Last we see of Kyle, he is in jail, location unknown.   “Be careful,” admonishes one young man, “because your addict is out there in the driveway doing push ups waiting to take you away.”  Dr Holmes knows this better than anyone.  As one patient leaves his office, he says sadly, “See ya kid.”  Hands in his pockets, head bowed, he doesn’t move for a few moments but just looks out after them.  He is a man trying hard and taking risks because he knows that something is better than nothing but in so many ways he is one small drop of water on a raging inferno.

Filmmaker Bess O’Brien took to the stage after the film and asked the people in the film to join her.  Spry Dr Holmes leaps up the steps to be met by hugs from his patients and proudly opens his jacket to show his Hungry Heart T shirt.  The applause is loud.  O’Brien takes to the microphone and calls out loudly, “Kyle, are you there?  Kyle?”  Her words hang in the air.  There is no response.


  1. jessica said,

    I myself was one of Dr Holmes patients. He is truly an amazing man. I am so thankful I got the chance to receive such great help from him. Everyone in the film is amazing for sharing their stories & rising above all the hatred & misunderstanding people that don’t know our disease first hand, addiction. Its a very powerful thing that some will just never know or fully understand. I now hold a full time job, have a son, roof over our heads , && everything we need. 5 years ago when I first started seeing fred for my addiction, i would of NEVER thought I’d where I am today! Just the other day while I was at work, in a convenience store, I looked up & saw kyle to be standing in front of me waiting to order. He had a job, he was with his coworkers on lunchbreak. && he looked good. I had to put that in there because of the talk about not knowing kyles whereabouts. He’s not in jail! Hopefully he’s doing better & has more to look forward to. Good job to everyone involved in the film. I wish now that when I was asked to be apart of the film, I’d had done so. Just to help make a difference!

    • Lund said,

      Thanks for this comment Jessica. Congratulations on your hard work in recovery and your success. We saw in this film how hard it is to combat an opiate addiction and were truly inspired by hard work like yours. Thanks for the update about Kyle, it’s good to know that he is out there somewhere doing well. Good luck.

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