Lorenzo’s Oil: Compassionate Take on Severe Neurological Condition

Lorenzo's Oil the 1992 film

Some films you only need to watch once for them to stick with you over the decades. And that’s the case for us with Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).

Rare illnesses are as fascinating as they are horrifying. We’ve covered a few of these before with The Family That Couldn’t Sleep (2006) and Jason Becker’s case of ALS.

Lorenzo’s Oil, directed by George Miller, tells the story of the young, rather tragic, life of Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone. As a child, he suffered from a rare condition called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD).

The film was a massive failure at the box office, but a critical success to some extent. 30 years on from its release… does it deliver a powerful message?

A Medical Mission in Lorenzo’s Oil

The film opens with the Odone family living in the Comoro Islands off the coast of Africa. Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) works for the World Bank and lives with his wife Michaela (Susan Sarandon) and their son.

That’s the young Lorenzo (Zack O’Malley Greenburg), who’s a bright kid with a lot of energy.

Once the family relocates to the US, Lorenzo starts to show signs of an unusual illness. Neurological issues emerge, such as falling over, losing his hearing, drooling, and throwing temper tantrums. Extensive analysis takes place before he’s diagnosed.

Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is usually fatal within two years. It’s very rare, but it’s a hellish thing with massive neurological degeneration.

Not taking that prognosis, the couple instead sets out to try and treat their son’s rare disease. And, Christ, a chance for Nolte to show what he was capable of. 

That efforts leads to a major clash with many medical professionals and everyone else the couple encounters.

Whilst trying to handle all of that, they must watch Lorenzo’s health deteriorate rapidly. Up to the point he’s bedridden, has lost his sight, can’t move, and can’t talk.

The Odone’s research eventually leads to a potential course of medication.

And so the Odone couple sponsor a major international conference. During this, one Dr. William B. Rizzo highlights the use of oleic acid as a possible therapy.

The couple begins the process of finding someone to produce the oil, contacting 100 firms worldwide.

They eventually find an elderly British chemist called Don Suddaby (played by himself in this film—he died in 1993) who takes on the challenge of distilling a formula.

Eventually, the Odone couple recipe a vial of the oil, which contained long chain fatty acids separated from rapeseed and olive oils. They add this to their son’s diet and await the results.

The oil halts Lorenzo’s ALD. And he begins making some improvements, albeit very slowly. By age 14, he can swallow by himself and answer with basic “yes” or “no” responses. He can also see again and move his head slightly.

Lorenzo’s Oil ends with highlighting the use of oil amongst other young ALD sufferers, who by the early ’90s were leading relatively normal lives.

So, yes, the film certainly made a mark for many people.

It’s very well performed, with Nolte and Sarandon on excellent form. And it’s a moving and compassionate film about severe illness and seeking answers.

But it is also one of those select few films you may only feel compelled to watch once. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List springs to mind. Or the onslaught of Requiem for a Dream (2000).

If you’ve never seen it, Lorenzo’s Oil is now part of a growing selection of films that dared to tackle severe medical issues.

It doesn’t sit easy with some people—those who don’t want to think about such things. And who think cinema should be casual popcorn fodder.

But the fact Lorenzo’s Oil was handled with such compassion 30 years ago, we think, is a fitting tribute to the skill of its director.

Production Notes for Lorenzo’s Oil

The film was shot in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, in the borough of Ben Avon. Filming started on September 9th, 1991.

Australian director George Miller is mainly famous for the ultra-violent Mad Max films. If that seems like an odd choice to step towards this project, that’s probably because he’s also a fully qualified doctor.

He was obviously clearly interested in this case, as he co-wrote the screenplay Australian dramatist Nick Enright.

Away from the director, the two leads in the cast were already famous.

But for Zack O’Malley Greenburg, the young actor who played Lorenzo, who didn’t ever act again after this film. He’s now 37 and works as a journalist and writer. He’s the senior editor for Forbes magazine and has had four books published!

And back to the film!

Its budget was $30 million, but it failed badly at the box office and only made back $7.2 million. Despite that, it received a lot of acclaim and was nominated for two Oscars.

We can’t say it’s now considered a cult classic, or classic of its genre, but it certainly represents a fine film that presents challenging subject matter. That’s not something many films get right.

About the Odone Family

Despite general praise for the quality of Lorenzo’s Oil as a production, there was criticism from the medical community. This was aimed at the film’s closing segment, which hails a “miracle cure” the Odone couple unearthed.

Since the pioneering early work, medical research hasn’t shown clear proof of the effectiveness of Lorenzo’s oil.

However, the film’s main focus did survive for two decades longer than was ever predicted. Although he never did progress much further than his early signs of recovery.

Sadly, the three subjects of the film are no longer with us. Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone died at the age of 30 on 30th May, 2008.

Augusto Odone died in October 2013 at the age of 80, whilst his wife Michaela died in June 2000 at the age of 61.

However, their pioneering work more than lives on.

And we feel the film now stands as a tribute to determination of spirit and commitment to loved ones.

4 comments

  1. Definitely agree some films only need to be seen once. I feel that way about Schindler’s List, too, though I could understand multiple watchings if you were doing research or something, though I wouldn’t want to do them too close together. American History X is another movie I never need to see again.

    I’ve never seen Lorenzo’s Oil, but it’s most certainly a household name. It’s interesting it didn’t do well in theaters. I’m curious about when it was released compared to Awakenings, which was another one of those “miracle medicine” movies. Those seemed to be popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awakenings is great! Oliver Sacks’ work is very impressive. The book was from the 1973, the film adaptation in 1990. The lady who voices Marge Simpson is actually in that, too.

      Lorenzo’s Oil is worth watching still, I’d say, although some areas have aged a little. No doubt.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah I didn’t realize that was based on an Oliver Sacks story! I have “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” on my reading list though I swear I’ve read at least part of it before, which wouldn’t be far fetched since my degree is in Psychology! I was so terrified after seeing Awakenings (I was only around 10). I used to check my hands to make sure they weren’t shaking. I think it was the idea that these people were “awakened” out of their catatonia but then eventually went back that was so upsetting. Like you think you have the answer, but then it’s snatched away D:

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, highly recommend Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Lent that a colleague recently and she loves it. Very intriguing!

          Awakenings is quite scary, yeah, it’s such a remarkable thing. The book is good as well. Of course, all based on real events.

          Liked by 1 person

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