The Review/Short Read/

Hump Day Movie: Awakenings

A deeply moving meditation on the meaning of freedom and human connection

Jul 13, 2016

This Saturday, July 16, TIFF Bell Lightbox plays a key film from my childhood that is also (not a joke) central to my conception of contemporary masculinity. Yes, I am riding hard for Steven Spielberg’s 199 classic Peter Pan adaptation Hook. While this film was critically panned, it remains a staple of my youth. Robin Wiliams’ Peter Banning learns to fly using the power of his goddamn imagination. I truly believe that scene, during which the Lost Boys engage in an imaginary food fight with day-glo coloured frosting, cemented the fact that I would become an adult that firmly subscribes to the efficacy of make-believe.

In a time where masculine heroes were primarily depicted as exceptionally ripped and exceptionally violent, Hook showed me that there are a multiplicity of ways to interact with the world around me. By foregrounding the importance of imagination and empathy, by showing the out-and-out power of belief, humour and laughter, Robin Williams’ portrayal made me realize there are alternative ways of being a man that can be constructive, rather than destructive, hopeful rather than caustic.

With all that in mind, I suggest that you double down on Robin Williams by seeking out his deeply grounded performance in Penny Marshall’s excellent 1990 drama Awakenings. Based on Oliver Sacks' memoir of the same name, the film chronicles Dr. Malcolm Sayers (Robin Williams), a physician working with catatonic patients who survived an outbreak of Encephalitis Lethargica. After realizing a positive effect that certain types of external stimuli have in routine tests, Sayers attempts a trial of a new drug called L-DOPA. This allows his patients to experience “awakenings,” where they are roused from their catatonic state. The first to wake up is patient Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro), who marvels at the new world that he is able to explore. He fights against the restrictions placed on his movement by his doctors, eager to get out and participate in a life that has passed him by until now. But as the time goes on, Sayers realizes that the effects of the miracle drug are fleeting. Now, Lowe begins to manifest symptoms of a returning catatonia.

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What follows is a deeply moving meditation on the meaning of freedom and human connection. Leonard Lowe longs to take in as much of the world as he possibly can. He’s been reborn as an adult and has a brief window to live and love, thus focusing the viewer on the moments we so casually throw away. The film rotates on the axis of Williams’ Dr. Sayers. He portrays the physician as a person who cares more about others than he does about himself, and is there to bear witness to the brief re-emergence of the personalities of his patients into the world. Williams’ performance shares the best parts of his turn in Hook. Gone is the melodramatic comic mania so often seen, it’s as though all of that displaced energy has been redirected to his oh-so-big heart, put on display for all to see. Here, the idea of belief — in oneself, and in the importance of each moment — is put to the forefront. We are all a confluence of complex stories. Sometimes, one just has to look a bit closer to really see what’s around them.