Imagine waking up to discover you’ve lost 10, 20 or even 30 years of your life. The young image you remember from the mirror is wrinkled and gray. Your family is grown or gone. While you slept, the world changed and left you behind.
For most of us, it would be terrifying.
The chance of those reactions seems to be the furthest thing from Dr. Malcolm Sayer’s (Robin Williams) mind when he begins a new drug therapy on catatonic patients in the summer of 1969. After spending years in a research lab, Dr. Sayer has hired on at a chronic care facility where he has to interact with actual patients and an assistant (Eleanor Costello). Reserved and awkward around other human beings, Malcolm struggles through the initial days dealing with the mostly comatose survivors of an encephalitis epidemic.
However, despite his discomfort with people, Malcolm finds it disturbing that many of the facility’s health care providers do little more than, in their words, “feed and water” their patients. As he begins working more closely with his caseload, Dr. Sayer discovers what he believes are hints of mental activity in his some of charges. After attending a presentation on a new drug therapy designed to help Parkinson’s disease sufferers, Malcolm begs hospital officials (John Heard) to let him try the treatment on a few of his patients.
His first choice is Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro). With permission from Leonard’s aging mother (Ruth Nelson), Malcolm begins administering increasingly high doses of the drug that eventually awakens Leonard from his unresponsive stupor. In time, other patients also respond to the therapy.
Awakenings, based on the book by British-American neurologist Oliver Sacks, offers an inspiring look at the doctor who refused to accept the status quo for his patients. But as with many medical experiments, setbacks happen. One unexpected side effect is the patients’ reaction to the loss of so many years. Others experience personality changes as their bodies develop a resistance to the therapy.
Yet while many consider the trial to be a failure, these patients teach the doctors a great lesson about living. Even though they are awake, many of the medical staff fail to fully engage in life, wandering around in their own kind of stupor. This seems especially true for Dr. Sayer who is so tentative about human relationships that he retreats to his books and plants whenever he can.
Though the film may not end with the kind of happily ever after conclusion audiences love, the story’s deeper message of “waking up” to the life we have may be one reason this film earned a Best Picture Award nomination at the 1991 Academy Awards.
The film’s setting in a mental institution where patients occasionally lash out verbally and physically. As well, infrequent profanities, a strong sexual expletive and brief depictions of drinking and cigarette use make this story unsuitable for children. However for older teens and adults who may be sleep walking their way through their existence, Awakenings opens viewers eyes to the miracles of everyday life.