The Hungry Heart


My name is Bess O’Brien; and I made the documentary film, The Hungry Heart, two years ago. What a ride it has been!

The Hungry Heart provides an intimate look at the often hidden world of prescription drug addiction through the eyes of Vermont pediatrician Fred Holmes and his work with patients struggling with opiate addiction. 

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The idea for the film came to me through Fred and his long-time patient, Katie Tanner, who both wanted to raise addicts’ voices and help erase the stigma that many

folks struggling with addiction carry with them. We thought making a film that would tell the stories of Fred’s patients and then touring the film through their home state of Vermont would raise consciousness and create change. It did!

Fred is the quintessential country doctor, beloved by his patients and community, often known to make house calls, a jokester, an avid fan of the Red Sox and an old-fashioned guy who tends to use phrases that date back to the 1950s – including his habit of calling ornery teenagers “squirrely youngsters.”

After 35 years of taking care of kids with coughs, colds and appendicitis, Fred discovered that a number of his young patients were addicted to painkillers. At age 65, he decided he needed to step up and help these desperate kids with this debilitating disease. Fred became licensed to prescribe Suboxone (buprenorphine), a drug used to help stop the cravings addicts have for opiates. He also became affiliated with the Howard Center, a local outpatient treatment facility that provided counseling and services to the folks he treated.

As I made the film, I began to better understand the simple but profound connection Dr. Holmes created with each patient. The film illuminates the healing power of conversation and the need for connection that many of these young addicts yearn for, but do not have in their lives.

We interviewed a number of older addicts, juxtaposed to Fred’s patients, who also described their recovery process. The road to recovery is paved with success stories and strewn with relapses, downfalls and tragic losses. We documented the many faces and diverse populations of addiction and their continued search for a life of recovery.

On the Road!

On September 21, 2013, The Hungry Heart premiered in Fred Holmes’ hometown of St. Albans, Vermont, to a packed house of 500 people. The following week the film had a grand premiere at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, for an audience of 1,500 people.

We then toured with the film to 37 towns across Vermont and people from the film toured with us. Small towns, cities, church basements, school auditoriums, movie theaters, opera houses and town halls – we were there, rolling into communities, setting up our projector, showing the film to crowds that averaged 100 people and grew to as many as 500 by the time we were done.

After each screening of the film, we had a conversation with the audience that was powerful and meaningful for both the viewers and us. The conversation around opiate addiction swept across Vermont. People were finally talking about this disease. Family members, addicts, folks in recovery, lawmakers, educators, doctors and business people were seeing the film, participating in the audience conversations and sharing their stories with others.

In January of 2014, The Hungry Heart was honored by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin during his State of the State address. His entire speech was devoted to the opiate epidemic in Vermont. As a result of the Governor’s ambitious initiative to deal with the rising prescription drug and heroin addiction in the state, The Hungry Heart has been featured in numerous national press and media outlets including ABC Evening News, The New York Times, Al Jazeera Television, The Boston Globe, NPR’s On Point, WBUR’s Radio Boston and MSNBC. Since the film’s premiere and the Governor’s call to action, Vermont has taken the lead as they moved away from a criminal

focus on drugs to a more progressive focus on addiction recovery.

The Hungry Heart has since toured throughout New England and into the rest of the United States. The film has screened at least 150 times in cities and towns across Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and upstate New York. In addition, The Hungry Heart was presented in Washington, DC, by Senator Patrick Leahy to legislators and policymakers. It has played at many national conferences including the Arkansas Attorney General’s Opiate Summit in Little Rock, the American Academy of Pediatrics conference in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Rural Health Care Conference in Westford, Massachusetts.

As part of an educational package with an extensive study guide, the film has also played in many middle and high schools in and beyond New England. In addition to these public screenings, The Hungry Heart has been booked by hospitals, universities, libraries, police departments, social service agencies, treatment centers, healthcare agencies, medical schools, community action groups and policymakers.

The film has been lauded by many professionals and writers, including bestselling author David Sheff, who wrote Beautiful Boy, a book about his own son’s addiction. Sheff wrote, “The Hungry Heart is a brilliant and beautiful film that captures the true lives of people in recovery.”

The film has great potential for continued success in many new venues across the country and into Canada. Opiate addiction is unfortunately everywhere; and communities and cities are searching for ways to generate dialogue, open discussion and create change around this challenging issue. The Hungry Heart provides a perfect starting point for discussion and action steps that many of our communities need.

Start the conversation in your area. We’d love to come to your town and share this film. Give me a call at 802.357.4616 or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Bess O’Brien co-founded Kingdom County Productions with her husband Jay Craven in 1990. She is also the director/producer of the highly acclaimed feature film Shout it Out based on the lives of Vermont teens and the original Voices Project live musical.

O’Brien co-produced the feature films Where the Rivers Flow North and A Stranger in the Kingdom. For more information about The Hungry Heart and to see a trailer of the film, please go to