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HMOs Got You Down? Think You’ve Got It Bad? At Least Your Life’s Not Lorenzo’s Oil

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What would you do if you were faced with seemingly impossible odds?

As health-care costs skyrocket and patients wade through oceans of HMO red tape, it’s hard enough filling out the paperwork when a member of the family gets sick. Now imagine doctors giving you a dire diagnosis and saying there’s nothing you can do about it.

Picture this: A silent man sits alone in a darkened library, intently looking through a thick medical book full of case histories written in minuscule text. As his terrified eyes focus on the pages, the words become larger and larger, until they fill the screen: paralysis, dementia, death. Suddenly, we see this same man, collapsed in a stairwell, wailing with grief. As his screams continue, the image slows down, and his pained, flailing gestures gain a strange kind of animal grace–as if we’re watching not a father learning about his son’s disease, but some noble beast being captured in slow motion. The most banal of activities–reading a medical textbook–has transformed into a moment of outsize, almost theatrical anguish, like a scene out of a bizarre opera.

Such is the peculiar effect of George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil (1993), which at first glance may seem indistinguishable from any number of disease-of-the-week flicks that cluttered American movie and TV screens throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The difference here was that Australian director Miller also created the Mad Max movies, and if Lorenzo’s Oil brings to mind anything, it’s not antiseptic medical dramas like Awakenings, but the stylized kineticism of The Road Warrior. With this movie, the Mad Max aesthetic enters the real world: This time, the director’s camera tracks and swoops not through barren sci-fi landscapes, but through suburban homes, hospitals and schools. And the quest is no longer for gas in some apocalyptic future, but for a cure to help a tragically ill boy.

Which brings us back to that screaming man on the stairwell: The actor in this case is Nick Nolte, playing Augusto Odone, a real-life World Bank economist who, together with his wife Michaela (played in the movie by Susan Sarandon), learned in 1984 that their 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, was suffering from Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare genetic brain disease that usually ended in death within a couple of years of diagnosis. In their attempts to do all they could for their gradually worsening child, the Odones discovered that ALD’s rareness meant that very little research existed on it. Frustrated by ineffective available treatments, they embarked on a journey to find a cure for the disease. The result was the titular oil–a combination of fats extracted from olive oil and rapeseed oil. It wasn’t a cure, but rather a treatment that offered serious hope for managing the disease. Lorenzo Odone himself surpassed all prognoses and lived to the age of 30 (he died earlier this year), and numerous others have taken the oil for decades, living perfectly healthy lives.

As the movie progresses, the Odones gradually take on mythical dimensions, and not always in a positive way. Most significantly, Michaela slowly becomes so obsessed with taking care of Lorenzo that she alienates and offends most of the people around her, including her own sister. Far from a noble sufferer, Michaela is often portrayed in the final act like a villain in a horror movie; she appears ominously in the background, her face not always visible. But we also understand that she is willing to become a monster for the sake of her child. (The script makes it clear that part of her obsession comes from the fact that the ADL gene was passed on to Lorenzo from her side of the family.) This deeply sympathetic character does deeply unsympathetic things; it’s a testament to Sarandon’s acting that she can effortlessly juggle such dramatic extremes.

Miller had originally trained as a doctor (working in an emergency room reportedly inspired him to make the first Mad Max), which explains the film’s dexterity in describing medical procedures and concepts. But what makes Lorenzo’s Oil so special is the vivid sense of humanity Miller brings to the proceedings. The film’s hyper style and larger than life performances are all in the pursuit of greater expressiveness–as if mere realism couldn’t contain the emotional turbulence of the Odones’ journey. The result is perhaps one of the most powerful American films of the last several decades; it is certainly one of the most underrated.

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