Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Written by George Miller & Nick Enright
Directed by George Miller
In the 1980s, young Lorenzo Odone suddenly began having strange fits and seemed to be gradually losing his faculties. His parents Michaela & Augusto, were baffled and went to numerous medical experts. Eventually, they discovered Lorenzo suffered from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a condition where a build-up of fatty acids damages the myelin sheath on the nerves and results in seizures & hyperactivity. There were no cures, treatments, or effective therapeutics, and the Odones were offered only hospice to ease Lorenzo’s death. They didn’t settle for this and began teaching themselves everything there is to know about the condition and the brain. Eventually, they discovered that extracts isolated from olive and rapeseed oils would stop the deterioration.
Lorenzo’s Oil was directed by George Miller, who most movie-going audiences know as the man behind Mad Max. This was Miller’s second non-Mad Max movie after The Witches of Eastwick, and he still brings his signature kinetic style to even a very personal melodrama. My big takeaway from the technique used is that Miller was able to successfully create the same sense of momentum in storytelling that is present in Fury Road.
It sounds strange to say because this isn’t the tone you expect in what could easily have been a Lifetime movie. Miller’s directorial choices elevate the story, heightening the archetypal and religious qualities of what happens on screen. He chooses a final image of the Sistine Chapel to represent Lorenzo’s consciousness, unable to communicate with the world but vast and with so much to share.
The casting of the Odones is pretty pitch-perfect. Susan Sarandon plays Michaela as an emotionally complicated person. She becomes rancorous towards caretakers who sees Lorenzo’s choking on his own saliva and beg her to be merciful, let him pass. Michaela spits back that while her son lacks a voice, she knows he would want to fight this, that there is much life left inside him. I am a little iffier about Nick Nolte’s casting as Augusto. He has a rough Italian accent that feels very fake, but it is not that bad that it can’t be overlooked.
One element of the film that I think comes from George Miller is the depth of medical knowledge presented. The technicalities of ALD are never dumbed down, and the script never tries to oversimplify the science. This is likely due to Miller having been a medical doctor before transitioning into film. The text is written so well that even if you don’t have a strong understanding of brain science, it allows the Odones to ask the questions the audience might be having early on in the story.
The movie is most definitely an intensely emotional experience. Miller evokes melodrama and doesn’t shy away from showing us the horror of what happens to Lorenzo’s body. The middle of the film, when the young boy has lost all motor functions and needs suction to keep him from drowning in his own saliva are harrowing. The young boy playing Lorenzo does a magnificent job conveying the physical torment of ALD and how you lose the external signifiers of humanity in some sense.
Lorenzo’s Oil does go on for a little too long. At one point, I checked the time to see how close we were to the ending and saw it was only halfway over. Many moments feel like they could have cut it for time, but on the other hand, you don’t want to lose any of the critical ups and downs of this story. I can’t say there are any movies about terminal illness that look quite like this one and are emotional yet never dishonest in how intense the emotions are.