SXSW 2018 Review: TAKE YOUR PILLS Shines A Light On An Alarming Problem

Director Alison Klayman dives into the history and allure of the cognitive-enhancing drugs propelling a $13 billion industry.

If you’re an avid BMD reader or just over the age of twenty, I am sure you remember that famous scene from The Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo a blue pill which would transport him back to his bed or a red pill to see “how deep the rabbit hole really goes”. Instead of presenting the choice between a fabricated existence and revealing an underworld hidden behind the illusion of reality, what if he is offering optimal performance coupled with laser-like focus and guaranteed success versus a sugar pill that merely maintains your current state? Which would you choose? What kind of factors would influence your decision, not only for yourself but for your children as well?

These are the kinds of questions director Alison Klayman attempts to answer in her detailed Netflix documentary Take Your Pills, which examines the rise in prescription stimulants within the United States. Klayman is no stranger to controversial subject matter. Her past work includes a documentary about Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist who blurs the line between art and politics, eventually leading to his eighty-one-day imprisonment. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry earned Klayman the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance in 2012, leading her to be included in The New York Times’ list of top directors to watch.

Klayman’s bravery shines through her filmmaking, and it is evident that the subjects she chooses to tackle are approached with dignity, despite their vulnerability in exposing an act or lifestyle that may be stigmatized. Structure in Take Your Pills is non-linear and expands upon accounts from multiple perspectives while weaving in historical and medical knowledge from academic professionals.

The documentary begins with a small group of college students who individually detail their experience with Adderall. Despite their varying academic majors, all of them emphasize the rampant need and availability for performance-enhancing drugs within campus-life culture in order to not only make good grades, but to keep up with the academic competition from their peers, as well. The sought-after effects are three-fold: the ability to excel academically, to maintain a favorable weight, and for some, to achieve a euphoric high. From a youth perspective, these three outcomes are considered optimal side effects. The positive effects from the medication are glorified, and the outlook on the pills is hardly viewed as a “drug” in the typical sense.

While some of the students address Adderall comically as a harmless norm, others emphasize how the drug is merely an affluent version of crystal meth that is prescribed too easily. The notion that everyone has at least some attention deficit (ADD) is mentioned as if to brush off any underlying stigma of its usage; but it’s noted that chemical structures in the brain do not always reveal a need for the diagnosis, let alone the medication. An art student named Jasper chronicles his experience growing up with Adderall to alleviate his hyperactivity. In a somewhat heartbreaking account, he discloses this medication impacted his physical health, social skills, and outlook on life negatively, causing him to feel like a completely different person when he was not medicated.

An adult perspective is also revealed both from a professional and parental standpoint. Further enabling the rise of pharmaceutical usage, medical doctors have been administering Therapeutic Use Exemptions to professional athletes more frequently. Former Chicago Bear player Eben Britton describes his use of Adderall for increased energy and pain purposes, which subsequently hijacks him toward a path of addiction, suspension, and eventual retirement. The world of coding and finance also fall prey to the competitive pressures that inspire cognitive drug use in order to perform at a rate worthy of reducing humans to machines.

From a parenting standpoint, there are arguments presenting favoritism for Adderall and Ritalin, as well as opposition. Both are reviewed while spotlighting the doctor’s pivotal role in diagnoses, in addition to the cultural environment during the time these decisions are made. Threaded throughout each interview of individuals sharing their own personal experiences are medical and academic professionals providing knowledge on the origin and evolution of stimulants while mirroring society’s preferred use of the pills.

America’s craving for the “pep” sensations achieved from stimulants date back to the early 1900’s, while the first documentation of its abuse on college campuses is reported in a 1937 Time Magazine article. Initially synthesized in 1929 for allergy relief, amphetamine usage transcended into the home, the military, and pop culture. The wonder drug was administered to soldiers in World War II and eventually migrated into the medicine cabinets of those displaying signs of depression, as well as women suffering from painful menstruation. The spectrum of its purpose continued to broaden, eventually infiltrating the artistic world courtesy of jazz musicians and beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The archival footage and historical recollections successfully support the notion that America’s love affair with stimulants is systemic. However, the fascinating synaptic shift lies in society’s current desire to tune in rather than tune out.

Take Your Pills is jam-packed with information dissecting the evolution of stimulant use and personal stories that corroborate the vast circumstances that drugs are ingested to succeed. It is worth noting that this is not a depressing documentary. You are not subjecting yourself to an eighty-seven minute-long alternate version of Intervention. The tone is straightforward, balanced, and intellectually stimulating. Statistics sprinkled throughout the film provide further insight, but you’ll have to wait until the credits roll if you’re curious about the sources.

While some claim that cognitive enhancements are the future, Klayman challenges us to analyze the question: “at what cost?” Is the cost of productivity worth compromising creativity as well as the ability to form meaningful social connections, or even risk addiction? Regardless, it’s helpful to hear these stories as they ultimately assist in providing the ability to make an informed decision about which pill you want to take--the red, the blue--or if you want to take a pill at all.