The underlying message of “(Un)Well,” in fact, serves as an indictment not only of the wellness industry, but more subtly of the healthcare system — in terms of people’s desperation to find solutions and take control of their choices — and education. After all, something must be broken when a sizable portion of the public is so poorly equipped to recognize dubious information being peddled in pursuit of profit.
Much of this comes across as subtext, watching anecdotal examples of people convinced that they have been helped by one therapy or another. As for those selling these products, many sound like true believers, and most appear well trained to avoid making claims that would directly run afoul of Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Instead, they demonstrate marketing finesse by saying things like, “I don’t promise a cure. But…”
Still, the scientists and journalists interviewed paint a coherent picture of how people can be manipulated, and the cult-like way these products are often promoted and sold through apparatus like multilevel marketing companies. “I was brainwashed,” says Stacey Hakula, a former essential oils distributor. “I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Not all the parts in “(Un)Well” are equally compelling. In addition to oils and aromatherapy and what’s called apitherapy (that is, bee venom), the topics include adults consuming breast milk for health and bodybuilding purposes; extreme fasting; a South American hallucinogen called Ayahuasca; and tantric sex.
What connects all of them, however, is a form of treatment more rooted in faith than science, with promised benefits that range from diabetes to cancer. In that context, the prevailing feeling is sympathy when listening to a woman who has struggled to find effective medical alternatives say, “I’m ready to put my trust in the bees.”
As for voices of reason, Yale neurologist Steven Novella acknowledges that while there are problems with the healthcare system, “turning to an unproven therapy isn’t a solution.” To those who might ask what’s the harm in alternative treatments, he says, “I draw the distinction between offering hope and offering false hope.”
“(Un)Well” can be second-guessed for coming across as almost too laid back in its presentation. Those who tout the benefits of oils, bees or breast milk aren’t challenged or asked to explain contradictions and inconsistencies. It’s up to the viewer, basically, to choose whether they agree with skeptical medical professionals and scientists or the firmly stated convictions of those who have bought into such therapies.
The parentheses in the title thus does a lot of heavy lifting, conveying the science-based community’s struggles to offset the steady flow of misinformation, dressing up the snake-oil salesmen of yore in new digital packaging.
That dynamic carries numerous implications, but watching “(Un)Well” at this particular moment — during a global emergency — reinforces how straining health decisions through the filters of hope and faith can become a prescription for disaster.
“(Un)Well” premieres Aug. 12 on Netflix.