Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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The Farewell

Posted on July 18, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness, grief and loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 19, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 11, 2019

Copyright 2019 A24
The Farewell” is based on a true story, as told by Lulu Wang on NPR’s “This American Life.” Wang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When her grandmother, still in China, received a terminal diagnosis, the news was delivered to her family but not to the woman herself, as is the practice in China. They have a saying: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, but the fear.” The relatives had to figure out a way to see her without making her suspicious about the reason, so they dragooned a cousin into having a wedding in China to give the family an excuse for getting together and spending time with her.

In the movie, Wang’s character is Billi (Awkwafina, shining in a very impressive lead dramatic debut role), a student in New York. The movie informs us as it opens that it is “based on an actual lie.” Billi is very close to her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), meaning that they talk often by phone and love each other unconditionally. But that does not mean that Billi is honest with her grandmother. She tells the kind of little white lie most of us tell our mothers and grandmothers. Half a world away, Nai Nai solicitously asks her granddaughter whether she is wearing a hat and Billi assures her that she is. Billi understands that it isn’t about a hat; her grandmother is just showing that she cares and in her own way she is doing the same.

Billi does not have the same easy warmth with her parents, and she does not tell them the truth, either. But that is more to protect herself from their disapproval and nagging than to reassure them. And she is enough of an American to be very uncomfortable with the idea of not telling Nai Nai the truth. Her mother explains that while Americans are all about individual autonomy and self-determination, Chinese think of the group first, and that means that the family is most important.

And so, they concoct the lie that Billi’s cousin, who lives in Japan, has decided to marry his girlfriend, and the wedding will be in China. They will all gather for a fake happy occasion because it’s “too painful to say goodbye.” For Billi, though, as I suspect for most of the people who will read this review, it is more painful to feel disconnected from her sorrow and sense of devastating loss.

This film is sharply written and beautifully performed. It is a perfect example of the adage that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. The Chinese settings and customs will seems strange and in some cases odd or funny to westerners, but everyone will understand the emotions — the way the family members want and expect so much from each other. Cultures may have different ideas about what we tell each other and how we mourn. But we all experience fear and grief, and we all try to find ways to comfort each other. Sometimes we tell stories like this one to help bring us together.

Parents should know that the themes of this film included illness and grief. Characters drink and get tipsy and there is some brief mild language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what medical information to give to Nai Nai? Why is Billi closer to her grandmother than her parents? What elements of this story are most like your family?

If you like this, try: “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and “The Joy Luck Club”

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Breakthrough

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content including peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Diversity Issues: Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?

The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.

Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.

And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.

John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.

Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.

We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.

Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?

If you like this, try: “Miracles from Heaven”

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The Upside

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Severe medical issues, some peril, reference to serious accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright 2019 The Weinstein Company
First, it really happened. A wealthy French aristocrat named Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was paralyzed in a paragliding accident and hired an ex-con to be his aide. Their friendship and their adventures together inspired a French box office record-breaker called “The Intouchables.” And now there is an American remake called “The Upside,” set in New York City, starring Bryan Cranston as the man in the wheelchair and Kevin Hart as Del, the “life auxiliary.”

Del did not want the job. He did not even know what job he was applying for. But his parole officer warned him that he would have to go back to prison if he could not show that he had been turned down by three potential employers. So, he takes the elevator to the penthouse thinking he is applying for a custodial position and barged into another candidate’s interview because he just wants to be turned down and get out of there and pick up his son from school. Instead, he ends up getting hired. Philip (Cranston) likes Del because he is so inappropriate. While the other applicants for the position spoke in low, soothing, deferential tones, Del was at home with saying whatever he was thinking.

Being at home with whatever the job required was another thing, however. Del is fine with lifting Philip into the chair and driving him around in his fancy cars. He is more than fine with his room in the penthouse, though the shower is very complicated and probably bigger than his prison cell. He is fine with Philip’s DNR orders. He is not fine with some of the more intimate aspects of the job.

It is about 15 minutes too long, and very much a studio product, burnished and focus-grouped. Philip teaches Del to appreciate opera and Del teaches Philip to appreciate Aretha Franklin. They each push the other out of their comfort zones. Del forces Philip to call his “epistolary” friend, a woman he has been corresponding with through old-school letters. Philip makes it possible for Del to resolve some of the issues of his past, including beginning to develop a relationship with his estranged son.

The three performers bring a lot of luster to a formulaic screenplay (opera/Aretha, TWO scenes high on weed, a breaking-everything-will-be-cathartic moment), especially Cranston, who brings warmth and depth to a character who is extremely patient and understanding (until he isn’t). Kidman is marvelous as Philip’s quiet and very proper executive assistant. And Hart has his best moments when he is slightly toned down, unsure, and disheveled from his usual high-energy, peppery persona, making us look forward to seeing him explore a wider variety of roles, maybe even something dramatic. If he listens to the advice Del gets from Philip, maybe that will happen.

Parents should know that this film features some strong and crude language, sexual references and graphic sexual humor and a mild situation, drug use and drug humor, and a severe medical condition.

Family discussion: What need can you find a way to fill? Who can you encourage? Why did Philip like Del?

If you like this, try: the original French version, “The Intouchables” and “Me Without You”

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Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2019

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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