Malcolm Sayer, a shy neurologist (Robin Williams), is assigned to work with patients for the first time after his research funding is cut off. His patients, all but catatonic, are in a ward called “the garden,” because their only treatment consists of “watering and feeding.” Ever since an epidemic of encephalitis (“sleeping sickness”) decades before, they have not spoken or appeared to understand anything that was going on around them. Everyone else has given up hope, but Sayer, approaching them as a researcher, notices that they are capable of reflex reactions, and believes that new medication used for patients with Parkinson’s disease may help these patients, too. Over the objections of the doctors in charge, he gets permission to try it on one patient, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro).
At first, there is no reaction, but soon Leonard “awakens.” His transformation is so thrilling that Malcolm is easily able to get permission and funding to treat the other patients. They, too, awaken, some more fully than others. A one-time musician does not speak, but plays the piano. Some of them are horrified at the time they have lost. But most are giddy with the pleasures of being alive. Malcolm takes Leonard outside, and Leonard’s embrace of everything around him contrasts sharply with the inhibitions of Malcolm, who hesitates to try anything but his work, and cannot even bring himself to have a cup of coffee with a friendly nurse (Julie Kavner).
Leonard becomes impatient to experience more. He develops a warm friendship with the daughter of another patient in the hospital (Penelope Ann Miller). He asks for permission to leave the hospital on his own. But he becomes hyperactive, angry, and ridden with tics. The medication’s side effects begin to overwhelm him. Malcolm sees that he is losing Leonard, and the other patients know that it must soon happen to them, too.
Soon, all of them are returned to their previous state of catatonia, the only evidence of their brief awakening the greater respect and affection they receive from the staff, and their impact on Malcolm, who heeds Leonard’s call to life by reaching out to the nurse.
Discussion: This movie is based on the book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was the basis for the character Malcolm Sayer. It is a powerful and moving story, brilliantly acted and directed. Like Malcolm, we can all use a reminder to appreciate the pleasures of being alive, including the pleasures that require us to take risks.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the neurologist means when he says, “because the implications of that would be unthinkable?” Why would he prefer to believe that the patients are not aware of what is going on? Were you surprised by the way any of the patients reacted to being “awakened?” Which reaction was most like the way you think you might feel? Why is it hard for Malcolm to interact with other people? How does Leonard change the way Malcolm behaves? Why does the staff treat the patients differently after the awakening, even when they go back the way they were?
Compare this movie to Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” especially Emily’s speech after her death, about what she misses and what she wants the living to be aware of.
Scriptwriter Steven Zaillian also wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List and wrote and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer. Teens will enjoy reading the Sacks book, and some of his others, especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, with astonishing and compassionate descriptions of some of his neurology patients.