Netflix movie ‘Awakenings’ considered to be de Niro’s best performance of all time

“Awakenings” is a drama film based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir about being a neurologist discovering the effects of the drug L-Dopa on catatonic patients who survived the post-World War I epidemic of Encephalitis Lethargica.

Robin Willams plays Malcolm Sayer, the neurologist who experiments with patients the effects of this drug, and Robert de Niro plays fictional character Leonard Lowe who is one of the patients and befriends Sayer.

Already a powerful cast with a heartbreaking concept, Rolling Stone called the film an “emotional knockout” that takes a piece out of you. 

There is no doubt that this film destined to make anyone cry from the beginning to end, and personally, I consider this film to be de Niro’s best performance of all time.

Encephalitis Lethargica was an epidemic that spread around the world right after  World War I and left its victims statue-like, speechless and motionless. 

It could also be referred to as an extremely advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease, as motor impulses are uncontrollable to the extent that patients either suffer full-body seizures or complete paralysis and nothing in between. After this widespread epidemic during this time, there was never a recurrence.

William’s character, Sayer, is this awkward and stiff neurologist who doesn’t know how to speak up. He begins to experiment with these patients at this Bronx hospital to bring these paralyzed people out of their motionless state and it works. He develops a pure and sincere relationship with patient Leonard Lowe, who has an “awakening” and begins to learn to walk and talk like a normal functioning person again. The film focuses on Leonard’s stages through his rebirth, and he begins his new life by first kissing the flowers. How sweet is that?

Of course when discussing tear-jerkers, there’s always a love story present. In this film, Leonard falls in love with a fellow patient’s daughter named Paula played by Penelope Ann Miller. 

She helps him with rehabilitation and befriends Sayer to learn more about this disease that traps people inside these mental states. Leonard and Paula fall more in love every day, and because Leonard became affected by this disease at such a young age, when he wakes up his mental state is still adolescent, making the passion and eagerness even more evident.

But as time progresses, the medication begins to fade. Leonard’s ticks come back stronger than ever, and he begins to suffer full body spasms again. Defiant and aggressive, he denies the fact that the medication isn’t working anymore and he begins to act up. He keeps trying to fight nurses and started looking to violence as a solution to his body not listening to him. None of the physicians want to confront Leonard and tell him that it is inevitable that he will return to his statue-like state of life, except Sayer.

Leonard learns to accept that this way of life isn’t going to last, and he breaks up with Paula without telling her that his illness is coming back. She knows already as it has been evident through his impulsive behavior, and instead of being upset, she slow dances with him for the last time and his ticks disappear for a moment. Cue the tears.

“Awakenings” is an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end and honestly, it’s hard to identify who you feel worse for. Your heart is bound to break.

Follow Jasmine at @_jaskim