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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What's the story?
Shy neurologist Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is assigned to work with a group of catatonic patients who, ever since an epidemic of encephalitis ("sleeping sickness") decades before, have not spoken or appeared to understand anything that was going on around them. Everyone else has given up hope, but Sayer notices they have reflex reactions and believes that new medication for Parkinson's disease may help. His superiors object, but 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, and the results are amazing. But eventually, Leonard 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.
Is it any good?
Directed by Penny Marshall, Awakenings is a powerful and moving story, brilliantly acted and directed. The movie is based on the book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was the basis for the character Malcolm Sayer. Like Malcolm, we can all use a reminder to appreciate the pleasures of being alive, including the pleasures that require us to take risks.
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what they think 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?
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