Side Effects of Netflix's New Doc 'Take Your Pills' Include Rage and Misinformation
One of my favorite jokes is about a man goes to the doctor seeking "smart pills," only to walk out with a sample of what turns out to be rabbit droppings. When he returns to the doc and points out that the "pills" are actually poop, the doc says, "See, you're getting smarter already!" Netflix's new documentary Take Your Pills is the 90-minute equivalent of the "smart pills."
That is not necessarily the fault of documentaries like Take Your Pills, which was directed by Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) and produced by Maria Shriver and her daughter Christina Schwarzenegger. Nobody should watch any sort of movie to make them smarter, not even if it's a so-called educational film, and definitely not if it's something falling into the category of an "issue" documentary. But the Netflix original masquerades as an educational experience, and as such, it has the power to confuse and misinform.
In my case, it made me extremely angry. The film addresses the increase in the use of prescription stimulants, particularly Adderall, by students, athletes, and competitive professionals in the worlds of finance and tech. Take Your Pills asks, according to its synopsis, "At what cost?"
Well, for anyone without proper information on the drugs, the cost can be the same as any substance abused out of ignorance. Take Your Pills features a number of characters offering testimonials about their experiences with Adderall, and rather than providing evidence that such a controlled substance is bad in and of itself, they reveal themselves to be deluded, exceptional in their experiences or having had acted stupidly.
One of them, former NFL offensive lineman Eben Britton, tells a story of how he was suspended from the league for taking Ritalin when he ran out of Adderall, the latter for which he had a prescription and Therapeutic Use Exemption. But because the two drugs are completely different (one of them is an amphetamine stimulant, the other a methylphenidate stimulant), he failed his drug test. That was completely on him, and maybe his doctor for not explaining the difference to him. It has nothing to do with anything regarding the drugs themselves.
Another character, a young artist who is angry about having been on Adderall growing up, keeps claiming the drug is basically the same as crystal meth, an assessment that doesn't line up with the available facts. The film actually shows a diagram detailing the "only" chemical difference between amphetamine and methamphetamine, but it's coupled with an explanation from Dr. Carl Hart, chair of Columbia University's Department of Psychology, implying the only reason Adderall is the drug of choice rather than prescription methamphetamine is because of the stigma of illegal meth. Meanwhile, interviewed psychotherapist Elizabeth Jorgensen falsely states that Adderall is "a small dose of meth in a pill" and stresses that it has "the same exact effects" on the brain's neuroreceptor sites. The latter may be sort of true, but it's also deceptively argued. You could say the same thing about the effects of exercise, to a degree.
Here's the part where I explain my anger. I don't like to be so subjective in my criticism of films, but Take Your Pills hit me on a very personal matter. My entire life, I've been skeptical of pharmaceutical drugs to a point of great opposition. Then I became a father of a son with ADHD, which not only crippled his learning, but was also affecting others in his school and recreational activities. Only after much convincing and research did I give in to the idea of medication. Even then, there was a trial and error process with the various prescription stimulants and doses, genetic testing to pinpoint the best combination of drugs and vitamins, and constant council with his pediatrician and teacher. For my developing son, and for this diligent parent, the meds are necessary.
Take Your Pills doesn't show this side of prescription stimulants. There is mention of the millions of children on drugs to help with ADD and ADHD, and there are grown subjects representing a life lived with the condition, but as a film interested in the increase in adult use and abuse of these meds, the focus leans so hard on the negatives that it devolves into anti-Adderall propaganda.
Critically speaking, that's fine. I'm all for well-directed propaganda and documentaries with set points of view on an issue or subject matter. But Klayman showcases many simple-minded testimonials -- one mother of a former Adderall user says, "I tried the drug and it worked, so I guess I have ADD too," which is clearly some imbecilic, backwards deduction -- along with broad and generalized expert claims about side effects and addictiveness, such as the suggestion that while children don't like exceeded doses of Adderall, all adults prefer it. This rhetoric immensely tarnishes her angle.
Many of the points against the drugs are trivial. I'm actually writing this review on a legal stimulant: caffeine. Of course there is a distinction between drinking coffee and taking a prescribed dose of Adderall, and so is there a distinction between taking a prescription and smoking crystal meth or misusing any legal substance. Children with ADD can be prescribed caffeine as well, but it's not as directly effective as treatment.
If Take Your Pills wants to make points about the increase of people using controlled substances, so be it. Klayman's film touches on how today's society has a general attention deficit problem and modern academic institutions and industries (including sports industries) have an issue in competitive productivity. The film addresses how doctors are too lax in prescribing drugs to certain patients. It calls out the history of pharmaceutical companies marketing ADD meds to moms with difficult children. It acknowledges class differences in what sort of drugs are abused by different sets of people. But it also follows multiple narratives that are more disparaging to the scapegoated meds than the very specific situations of misinformed and misdirecting individuals.
In the final third of the film, which is typically when documentaries reveal their true agenda with alternative solutions or concepts or products, Klayman promotes, through inclusion, the new fad of LSD microdosing, as if the whole issue to begin with is about the drug of choice rather than the dosage. As if there wasn't some slight admission throughout that prescription amphetamines are minimally dosed and have, historically, seen problems with increased and concentrated use. As if there aren't side effects with any drug. As if you can't also take too much acid.
One of the most maddening statements in all of Take Your Pills, though, comes at the end. It's another frustrating comment from the young artist, who says that people should just teach kids to focus, which sounds really logical and easy but isn't practical or affordable for most families. Believe me, if behavior therapy was a feasible option for my son and not costly in its time and commitment as much as in its literal expense, I'd prefer it to medication. But it's true, kids with ADD and ADHD should probably go through some multimodal process to potentially limit or eliminate the need for drug treatment down the road. He may not have had that luxury.
The artist does make one salient point in that same mostly misguided statement: "It's too easy to put a kid on something close to meth and not question it." Yes, of course you should question it. Question any treatment. Question your doctor. Question people implying that their experience is everyone's experience. Question anybody claiming Adderall and other stimulants will make you smarter. And definitely question documentaries -- especially this one.