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Lorenzo's Oil (1992)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

The movie, a true story, begins in the Comoros Islands in 1983. Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone (played by several different people) is a bright young boy. His parents Augusto (Nick Nolte) and Michaela (Susan Sarandon) are not natives of the Comoros. Because of his father’s work Lorenzo and his family will be moving to the USA. Lorenzo will be leaving his friends, especially his favorite friend, an older boy Omuori (Maduka Steady).

The story resumes later in the USA with Lorenzo having some problems in school. A young teacher (Laura Linney in her first credited screen role) tells Lorenzo’s parents about the troubles he is having. At first, the problems are thought to be ADD related, but that turns out not to be the case. Although the problems seem neurological in nature, his EEG and CT scans are normal. Further testing shows that he has adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare but terrible genetic disease that strips the myelin from brain cells. Augusto and Michaela are told that there is no hope for Lorenzo, but neither parent is willing to accept that verdict. They start doing research into the disease and what is being done about it.

ALD victim's bodies fail to break down some long chain fatty acids which build up in the brain. The progress of the affliction is horrible as the brain’s function deteriorates. In their search the Odones discover Prof. Gus Nikolais (Peter Ustinov), who is the acknowledged world-wide expert on the disease. He has a dietary protocol in which the Odones start Lorenzo. The effect of Nikolais’ diet actually aggravates Lorenzo’s problems as his blood’s concentration of the harmful fatty acids increases. At a conference put on by a group which is founded to aid ALD families, the Odones bring up the situation with Lorenzo’s reaction to the Nikolais diet, only to find that the organizers are not receptive to any conflict with the doctors working with them. Those doctors are very wary of trying anything very innovative for fear of losing grant money. The Odones struggle on.

Lorenzo’s Oil is difficult to review, because it is such a fine film. No matter how much is said it will not adequately describe how good a movie it is. From the standpoint of individualism, the film is outstanding for several reasons. The courage and perseverance of Lorenzo is one aspect. The devotion of his parents and their struggle with both Lorenzo’s disease and the medical establishment is another aspect. The efforts of other people to help the Odones, such as the private sector company that supplies the first Olive Oil derived treatment and Don Suddaby (who plays himself) who works steadily to fractionate the first batch of what becomes known as Lorenzo’s Oil, are also fine parts of the story.

Perhaps most noteworthy, the movie depicts what is possible under even a limited scheme of medical freedom. It should also be said that although the movie shows how limited medical freedom was even 10-20 years ago, it is more limited now as more research funding is controlled by political entities.

The Odones battle disease and its ally death to save their child. The performances of Nolte and Sarandon are especially excellent. Although Peter Ustinov plays a less than sympathetic character, he does his usual fine job. This film is nothing like the Mad Max films or Babe movies, for which George Miller may be best known, but his execution as producer, director and screenwriter is truly masterful. Even all that praise does not capture the quality of this movie.

If you or someone you care about has had trouble with the medical establishment this movie might give you hope and help show the way that more can be done. If you wish to find out more about the Odones and their continuing efforts against ALD and its effects look into the Myelin Project. However, before you do that, watch Lorenzo’s Oil.

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