As this film opens, the Reimullers of Kansas City, Dave, Lori and their three children, seem like the perfect all-American family happy, normal and financially comfortable, if not exactly rich. And then their youngest son, Robbie, is diagnosed with severe epilepsy. At this point you just know that the film is going to turn into one of those disease- of-the-month television films. ("Last month anorexia, this month epilepsy, next month bipolar disorder
Or is it? Most disease-of-the-month TV movies do not, after all, feature major Hollywood stars like Meryl Streep. Nor are they generally directed by big-name Hollywood directors, especially when those directors are, like Jim Abrahams, best known for comedies. "Airplane!", "Naked Gun", Top Secret!" etc).
As the film progresses, we realise that it was made with a particular agenda in mind. Robbie is treated with various anticonvulsant drugs, but none are effective in controlling his epileptic seizures and some have serious side effects. The family nearly bankrupt themselves in trying to pay for his treatment. Eventually Dr Abbasac, the doctor in charge of Robbie's care, asks his parents to consider surgery. Lori, however, sees surgery as a dangerous last resort and begins her own research to find out if anything else can be done for her son. She discovers that there are two approaches to treating childhood epilepsy. One is to treat the disease by means of drugs and surgery, and this is the method favoured by Dr. Abbasac. The other is to treat it by means of a special diet, but Dr Abbasac regards this method as being an unproven theory based upon dubious science and refuses to consider it for Robbie.
The purpose of the film is, essentially, to make propaganda for the ketogenic diet approach. Apparently Abrahams' own son Charlie is an epileptic who was successfully treated by this method, and Charlie has a brief cameo in the film, as do several adults who were treated with the diet as children and Millicent Kelly a dietician who has helped run the ketogenic diet programme at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore since the 1940s. The advocates of conventional medicine are shown in a bad light, especially Dr Abbasac who is portrayed as unsympathetic, blinkered and intolerant; she does everything in her power to dissuade the Reimullers from trying the diet and even tries to physically prevent them from travelling to Baltimore.
Meryl Streep is by far the best-known actor in this film, but I must say that this is not really one of her best performances. The late nineties, in fact, have always seemed to me to be something of a fallow period in her career, with no really great films between "The Bridges of Madison County" in 1995 and "The Hours" in 2002. (She seems to have recovered in the present century, with excellent performances in the likes of "Rendition", "The Devil Wears Prada", "Doubt" and "The Iron Lady"). Here, as the distraught mother Lori she comes across as too hyper- active, her rapid-fire speech and hand gestures seeming to indicate agitation rather than genuine grief or concern
I have no medical qualifications and therefore am not in a position to comment on the advantages or disadvantages of the two contrasting approaches to controlling epilepsy. I suspect, moreover, that most viewers of this film will be in a similar position. It seemed to me that Abraham was using the film to make criticisms of the medical profession, or at least of elements within the medical profession, the merits of which the average viewer would not be qualified to judge, and to advance arguments more suited to the pages of a medical journal than to the television screen. I can envisage a good film being made about some of the scientific controversies of the past, such as the battles over evolution in Darwin's day, but ongoing medical and scientific debates do not really strike me as suitable material for turning into films. 4/10