Located on the Ohio River just across from West Virginia, the village of Pomeroy (pop. 1,673) was a prosperous industrial town in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1870, Pomeroy had 5,000 residents who worked in a wide variety of industries including coal mines. steel mills, machine shops, a brewery, an organ factory, a buggy and wagon factory, tanneries, cobbler shops, furniture factories, monument works, and flour shops, among others.
The town’s founder, Samuel Wyllys Pomeroy, had declared in 1830 that the region would be “a good healthy place to live, and with proper management [enjoy] a bright industrial future.” But by the 1970s, Pomeroy, like many other similar towns in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, had become a shadow of its original self, with boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated homes, to say nothing of legions of traumatized residents. In 1975, the EPA shut down its salt works—a major employer—for polluting the air with sulfurous coal smoke and the river with brine. Not surprisingly, in the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump captured 75 percent of the county-wide vote there.
These seismic shifts in the bedrock of middle America have had a devastating impact on many families, who have been driven to the edge of desperation. Inheritance, a documentary film that is at once stunningly beautiful and achingly tragic, focuses its lens on three extended families as they strive to maintain scraps of dignity and self-esteem while battling inner demons of opioid addiction and general hopelessness. Created over a period of seven years, the film traces the growth of Curtis, a young man whose bright, ambitious stance seems to be a counterweight to this malaise, offering some promise he will not tread the dark path taken by his kinfolk.
But his kinfolk are the real stars of this film: depicted, warts and all, with their prematurely wrinkled skin, rotting teeth, and profanity-laden tongues. In one of the most graphically intense scenes, one family member with a syringe and tourniquet is seen injecting drugs into the arm of another. Still, it is to the credit of the filmmakers’ art and compassion that they tell these stories with sympathy and respect, interspersing scenes of degradation with inspirational vignettes of family members at a Bible class or prayer meeting, or helping each other with household repairs.
Inheritance, which won the top prize at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, was produced and directed by Matt Moyer and Amy Toensing. Their project began in 2012 when Moyer was approached by J.P., an ex-con who was eager to tell his story about his search for redemption after years of heroin addiction and related trauma.
“As we spent time with J.P., his family, and his community,” they wrote, “we realized the issue was far more complex than the devastation wrought by one drug. Here was a troubled America, one where communities that bore the brunt of economic decline now faced inherited poverty, joblessness, abuse, addiction, and hopelessness. At the core, it seemed, was a cycle of intergenerational trauma and mental health problems underlying America’s substance abuse crisis.”
Their film is also notable for its rich visual texture: the narrative is bolstered by vignettes of imaginative scenes that give the viewer a sense of place and serve as silent witnesses to the human drama. For example, in the scenes of the muddy Ohio River flooding the town, or in the scene of household cats scurrying about like ravenous rats. When J.P. doggedly files rust off a chainsaw and fells a tree for firewood, it seems that the rough bark and flickering flames are tangible expressions of what is going on in the minds and hearts of these troubled folk.
Inheritance may not be the most pleasant film to watch, but it nonetheless delivers a powerful message that someone cares about these bruised and wounded characters, if only outsiders like a team of filmmakers. The redeeming grace of Inheritance, though, is that the family members have not totally lost hope: in spite of their traumas, they still find ways of expressing love to one another, however fleetingly.
This is a powerful film in the best traditions of the documentary genre—one that deserves to be seen far and wide for its frank and honest portrayal of some of the nation’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. Though it is full of sound and fury, Inheritance is decidedly not a tale told by, or about, idiots.
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Here’s the trailer of the film.