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Addiction and Recovery on “our American Family”: an Interview With Halee Adelman and Sean O’Grady

Our American Family premieres on National Recovery Month, but it hardly needs the excuse of a date. According to the Addiction Center, at least 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, and only 10% receive some form of treatment. This timely and urgent documentary directed by Hallee Adelman an Sean King O'Grady sheds light on the turmoil of one Philadelphia family struggling to overcome this illness.

Addiction is everywhere. Linda grew up in a home marked by her mother’s anorexia. Her first marriage suffered under her husband’s bout with addiction. She watches two of her three kids struggle with substance abuse. “What was most important for the family was to stop hiding. They saw that addiction thrived when it is hiding”, says Adelman. She met Linda eight years ago. Throughout their friendship, the idea of documenting her family’s story became the seed of “Our American Family”.

Linda and her second husband, Bryan, opened their home to a camera crew that recorded their life for a year, just as daughter Nicole fought to sustain sobriety after several stints at rehab and a near-fatal overdose. Older brother Chris seems to have left his addictions behind, while younger brother Stephen tries to support his siblings even if their trials take most of the attention of the grownups. Also on board is Nicole’s daughter, Giovanna, a toddler raised by her grandparents. 

We talked with co-directors Adelman and King O’Grady as they prepared for the premier.

Knowing the family beforehand made the process easier or harder for you? Did you feel more responsible because of that?

Halee Adelman: It made it easier for us to establish a level of trust. We are super responsible in the way we conduct ourselves. But we did feel the responsibility of getting the story right. And doing right by them, which is something I hope every filmmaker, whether you know a participant or not, would deeply consider.

You spend a lot of time in their home, their private spaces. How do you make your camera equipment as less intrusive as possible? 

Sean King O’Grady: Our camera kits kept getting smaller and smaller. Every time it was a fun experiment of "How do we make the camera smaller?" How do we make ourselves less present? Due to the relationship that Hailee has with the family, there was a lot of trust there. And it really felt like we were family. We really were that close. 

It was really about trying to become part of the woodwork without intruding on them. I felt, more than anything I’ve ever worked on, that they continued to operate as a family as if we were not there. And that is because that trust was so strong.

With the rise of reality TV and social media, we have been trained to “perform” as ourselves instead of just being. Did you ever catch people “acting”?

Sean King O’Grady: No, I did not feel anything performative going on. One of the things that made this project and this family so special is that I genuinely felt that every moment was genuine. Even when we kind of engaged with them at the end of the shooting day, having some fun, the interactions between the film team and the film family were genuine. As if the cameras were not there. It was truly remarkable. 

Was there any moment that made you flinch? Something too personal that made you think “maybe I should not be here”?

Sean King O’Grady: I did not feel that way. I feel that when we first started this process and talked with Hailee and the family, the goal was to capture everything. We wanted to show what it is like to live with early recovery and how it affects every family member. I think that to do that we need to show everything. Nicole used a term at the beginning of the process, the nitty-gritty. And that is what we wanted to show. And that does not mean showing drug use. That means showing what happens, the emotional fallout. If we had shied away from any of those moments, it would not have been true to the family's bravery. It would not have been true to the story.

Were you ever concerned that your presence would hinder her recovery?

Haylee Adelman: No, because we knew we were in line with what was most important for the family. What was most important for the family was to stop hiding. Addiction had run through Linda’s family for generations. So this was a family who was very determined to not hide anymore. And because of that, they said to us, "thank you for your love, thank you for not judging us, let’s be in this space together”. And we took it very seriously. They forgot the cameras were there, but hopefully, they never forgot the love that was right there with them.

Did you engage a therapist to help you navigate the process of documenting this story?

Haylee Adelman: We didn't engage a therapist to help us navigate portraying this family because we felt they were being honest themselves. But we did engage a therapist for after care to support the family and give them the option, if they felt that they wanted to reach out to someone, knowing that they had been so vulnerable, to help them through that process.

How do you feel now that the movie is complete? Was this the story you were looking for?

Hailee Adelman: It's funny because we were not looking for a story. We were supporting a family fiercely determined to be honest and make a change. So, for us, no matter how the “story” ended, we were still going to be determined that whatever they may share with the world could make a change, and build compassion. When you see Nicole have her daughter raised by her mom in the film, and be selfless enough to let that go…That was something that we knew was happening, and we shared it no matter what. 

Or when you see Bryan, the stepfather, going through his transformation. He goes from saying “Nicole has been to 17 treatment centers, there is no chance that she is going to find any level of success”, to “wait a minute, there is more to Nicole than what I’m putting on her. She is eloquent, and beautiful, and she has many ideas”. For him to step outside of himself, see her more fully, and humanize her as a child, or a stepchild in this case…all of those things were gonna happen whether or not Nicole achieved long-term sobriety in the end. 

We are grateful that we saw her do that, and she is now almost five years sober, but we also know that there are struggles and that it does not have to be that someone is using. It can still be hard. But we are not trying to present a story that closes with a perfect bow. We are trying to show something real and invite other people in, so that they know they are not alone. Or maybe they can consider a new mindset, and suspend judgment, so we can really change the conversation around this issue.

What does the family say? Have they seen the movie?

Haylee Adelman: We showed the family the film before we showed it at festivals. I think they have a great sense of pride that they were this brave. They are so grateful that they put themselves out there this way; for the opportunity to help other people. And I think they are also a little afraid right now. Like, what is happening next? Will people be loving? Are people ready to open a door to having a powerful conversation that doesn’t include judgment, that is just love-driven to help our next generation?

* Our American Family opens September 2 in theaters and on VOD (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, VUDU) on September 6, 2022.

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