Netflix’s ‘Pain Hustlers‘ presents the story of a company and its employees who push for the sale of a drug that adds to the devastating consequences of an ongoing opioid crisis in the country. While the film is a reflection of their greed, it isn’t so quick to dismiss them all as evil characters. The lead character, Liza Drake, walks a grey line as she struggles with the idea of her job but also wants to make money. The conflict for Liza stems from the concern for her daughter, Phoebe, who has a health issue that needs to be taken care of. It is the well-being of her daughter that takes priority for Liza and influences her decisions. Here’s the role that Phoebe plays in Liza’s story.
Phoebe’s Illness Is a Primary Justification for Liza’s Actions
In the movie, Liza Drake is a single mother who wants to provide for her daughter but continually struggles with it because she cannot hold down a good job for a long time. On top of that, Phoebe has epileptic seizures, which are a result of a brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation). To permanently solve the problem, Phoebe either needs a craniotomy or the keyhole procedure, which is less invasive but is not covered by Liza’s insurance.
When Liza starts selling Lonafen for Zanna Therapeutics, she makes a lot of money, but it’s still not enough to pay for the procedure. In between this, Liza also sees the havoc that the blatant misuse of Lonafen is wreaking on people, especially when the people she knew die of overdose, and decides to do the right thing because she doesn’t want to be part of Zanna’s evil money-making plans anymore. She could also be motivated by the fact that her daughter might be prescribed the same thing for her recovery, which would be Liza’s worst nightmare.
Phoebe’s presence also gives Liza a higher moral ground as compared to her colleagues and her boss. Even though she participates in the sale of Lonafen, she does it because she actually needs the money, not because of greed. Taking care of her daughter surpasses every other problem for her, but she still struggles with the moral dilemma and repeatedly tries to stop, or at least warn her colleagues of not crossing into the illegal territory.
Phoebe Drake Doesn’t Have a Real-Life Counterpart
While ‘Pain Hustlers’ is loosely inspired by the true controversy surrounding Insys Therapeutics and the sale of Subsys, several characters in the movie are fictional, including Phoebe. Liza’s character is an amalgamation of several real-life people but most notably resembles the arc of Sunrise Lee, a former exotic dancer who was scouted in 2012 by Insys VP of Sales Alec Burlakoff to become a sales rep for the company. Much like Liza, Sunrise is a mother, but it could not be confirmed whether any of her two children have AVM or any other illness that would motivate her the way Liza is in the movie.
While her children were healthy and Sunrise didn’t need quick money for surgery, she did need to provide for them. She was also preparing to enroll in Michigan State University and needed to save money for that. When Burlakoff offered her a job, he said, “Dancers were the best salespeople.” Later, he helped her with the interview, somewhat like Pete Brenner does in the movie when he changes Liza’s CV and writes “PhD” on top of it.
Lee rose the corporate ladder and became a sales manager within weeks and was one of the executives who were convicted of racketeering charges following an investigation into Insys’ practices. She served eight months of her one year and a day sentence in a Kentucky federal prison – she was released on January 14, 2022 – and is now reforming her life, building a better future for herself and her children.