Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a new doctor working in a ward full of comatose patients. In his last job, he was content working alone with earthworms, here he seems uneasy and out of his element. The ward is referred to as The Garden, meaning the vegetable like patients only need feeding and watering, but Sayer wonders if there is more to their condition. He soon discovers that they cannot move by their own will, but must borrow the will of something else. For example, when Sayer throws a ball towards a man, he will catch it. So Sayer starts putting one patient, Leonard (Robert DeNiro), on a chemical regiment hoping that it will awaken him from his vegetative state. Like a medical miracle, it works and Leonard is beautifully awake, aware and busting with life. Through his amazing results, they seek donations to start the other patients on the medicine and soon the once frozen, eerie ward is full of lively people. Sadly, the treatment is only experimental and the conditions may not be permanent.
The idea that these people, who seem frozen in time, yet aging, can still be thinking and aware through this condition is sad and can be hard to comprehend. These poor people have been unable to communicate or be active for decades. To suddenly be awake, aware and able to go out into a new world and live makes these people want to run and make up for the time they have lost. I can’t help but think about how terrible it must be to be trapped alive within yourself with no way to get out.
Thing is, people can do this to themselves without being in a catatonic state. Dr. Sayer seems to be stuck within his shy shell. Being around so many people -catatonic or not- seems to make him long for his old job, just working with earthworms. But after watching his patients spring to life one after another with a new thirst for human connection, he begins to have a new appreciation for the little moments he takes for granted in his life.
Robert De Niro gives a heartwarming performance as Leonard, who has been in a catatonic state since his teens. From a mouth agape statue, to a perfectly functional man, still young in his mind, De Niro’s range of character here is astounding. The strong relationship between Leonard and his mother is very sweet and has endured over the decades, but as Leonard realizes how much time has passed him by, he has a sudden need to cut the apron strings. What’s most wonderful, is the excitement about all the new things that have happened over the years that Leonard wants to see and learn about, but we’re heartbroken when he degenerates before out eyes.
It’s all very sweet, miraculous and heartbreaking. The greatest message this film holds isn’t one of hope, but one of nourishing the human spirit. It’s so easy to let anyone (catatonic or not) just slip into a dormant life, and Awakenings reminds us of the power of just being awake and alive.
“What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place; that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and THAT is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.”