Alum directs documentary of city’s renewal

Down in a small town in Ohio, opioid epidemics are improved through fitness.

“Small Town Strong” overviews the consequences of drug use afflicting Portsmouth, Ohio over the last few years and the solutions used to solve it. (Sophia Stewart / Daily Trojan)

The Price School of Public Policy hosted a screening and panel discussion of the documentary “Small Town Strong” Wednesday in the Greenlaw Auditorium. USC students, faculty and the film’s crew banded together to explore how the city of Portsmouth, Ohio combatted a deadly drug epidemic through fitness routines.

The inspiring film was directed by USC alum Chase Milsap and his brother, Spencer Milsap. Throughout the film, viewers meet several active members of the community who work together to form a gym where they used CrossFit to combat the town’s crippling fentanyl epidemic.

“There are a series of systematic gaps that the opioid crisis has been able to exploit,” Chase Milsap said.

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The documentary follows Army veteran Dale King after he returns to his home in Portsmouth in 2010. Once he sees that his idyllic hometown is collapsing, King is determined to rekindle the once-thriving economy of Portsmouth. In an early shot of the film, the city is portrayed as a fallen system where drug use is common for many of the city’s residents.

“Small Town Strong” was thought-provoking for many of the filmgoers, including Harper He, a second-year master’s student studying public policy and data sciences.

“I always thought that [drug addiction epidemics] were big-city problems,” He said. “This really showed me that it can occur in a rural place.”

As the documentary progresses, the audience watches King and his team of co-workers develop a gym that actively assists substance abusers as they strive for recovery.

“Joining the gym is not the message of this film, putting more and more stringent regulations on doctors so they prescribe less oxycontin to their patients.” Sharon Schindel said. “I think if there’s any message of this film it is that it requires stepping outside the paradigm of a quick fix.”

King’s gym becomes a quick success, and soon after he creates it, King begins a small business focused on natural ingredients.

As the film continues into the 2020 supply chain disasters, the audience sees how King took the demand for kettlebells and turned it into an opportunity for his community’s economy to thrive.

“I grew up in [Los Angeles], but I am not as familiar with what it’s like growing up in a small town and being intimately part of a small town,” said audience member Andrew Shults. “So it just was interesting to see how one small community is tackling issues that are going on in a very unique way.”

The film tackles the serious topic of opioid-related drug overdosing, which took 80,411 lives in 2021. The documentary doesn’t let the viewer forget that opioid-related drug overdoses can take anyone’s life; this point is thoroughly established when King’s respected friend Billy Dever is shockingly announced as another victim of an opioid-related drug overdose death in 2021.

The film had eight executive producers: Maile Gerken, J. David Harden, Dale King, Chase Millsap, Matt Ochacher, Anna Roberts, Sharon Schindel and Brian Volk-Weiss.

The panel featured Chase Milsap, along with Rosalie L. Pacula, a professor of health policy, economics and law, and Schindel.

“I was a foot soldier in the war on crime in New York City in the ’90s,” Schindel said. “It’s pretty clear that it was an epic fail, and criminalizing addiction was no more effective in stemming the tide of the opioid [and] fentanyl crisis.”

The film ends with a message of positivity, as it shows the grit, passion and dedication it takes people who misuse substances to endure as they pursue a life of recovery.

“This movie is focusing on breaking the cycle of isolation [and] addiction,” said film attendee Madison Wu, a second-year master’s student studying public policy and data science. “I wish we could have more of these gyms in L.A. so it could help more people.”

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