Lorenzo’s Oil is a 1992 American drama film directed by George Miller. It is based on the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, two parents in a relentless search for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) who later founded The Myelin Project. They invented an oil treatment that is still in use to this day. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards.
About the Film
At the beginning of the film, Lorenzo is portrayed as a bright and vibrant young boy but when his parents relocate to the United States he begins to show neurological problems, loss of hearing, tantrums, etc. The boy is diagnosed as having ALD which is fatal within two years. Failing to find a doctor capable of treating their son’s rare disease, Augusto and Michaela Odone (played by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) set out on a mission to find a treatment to save their child.
In their quest, the Odones clashed with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who were skeptical that anything could be done about adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), much less by laypeople. But they persisted, setting up camp in medical libraries, reviewing animal experiments, enlisting the aid of Professor Gus Nikolais (played by Peter Ustinov), badgering researchers, questioning top doctors all over the world, and even organizing an international symposium about the disease.
Despite research dead ends, the horror of watching their son’s health decline, and being surrounded by skeptics (including the coordinators of the support group they attended), they persisted until they finally hit upon a therapy involving adding a certain kind of oil (actually containing two specific long chain fatty acids, isolated from rapeseed [canola] oil and olive oil) to their son’s diet. They contacted over 100 firms around the world until they found an elderly British chemist (Don Suddaby, who played himself in a cameo role) working for Croda International who was willing to take on the challenge of distilling the proper formula. The oil, erucic acid, proved successful in normalizing the accumulation of the very long chain fatty acids in the brain that had been causing their son’s steady decline, thereby halting the progression of the disease. There was still a great deal of neurological damage remaining which could not be reversed unless new treatments could be found to regenerate the myelin sheath (a lipid insulator) around the nerves.
In 1989, Augusto forms The Myelin Project taking on the new challenge of organizing biomedical efforts to heal myelin damage in patients. The film ends with Lorenzo at the age of 14 showing definite improvement (he could swallow for himself and answer yes or no questions by blinking) but indicating more medical research is still needed. The end credits of the film note that Lorenzo also regained his sight and was learning to use a computer.
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Lorenzo’s Oil was nominated twice at the 65th Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Susan Sarandon) and Best Original Screenplay (George Miller & Nick Enright). Susan Sarandon was nominated for Best Actress at the 50th Golden Globe Awards. The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen at the WGA Awards.
Lorenzo’s Oil was acclaimed by critics, and held a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave it four out of four stars and called it an “immensely moving and challenging movie”. He added, “it was impossible not to get swept up in it” and James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave it three out of four stars and claimed, “it was about the war for knowledge and the victory of hope through perseverance.”
The film received mixed responses from the medical community. While it seemed to accurately portray the events related to the boy’s condition and his parents’ efforts during the time period covered by the film, it was criticized for painting a picture of a miracle cure. In the years following the film it has been determined that Lorenzo’s oil can prevent the occurrence of the disease in genetic carriers of ALD, but in those already showing symptoms it can only slow the progression but does not stop the disease. The actual subject of the film, Lorenzo Odone, died in May 2008 at the age of 30, having lived two decades longer than originally predicted by doctors.