Parents would naturally do just about anything to save their children’s lives. That’s precisely what Brian and Danielle Dwyer did in 2014, when their son Waldo was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer, and they chose to complement his chemotherapy with medicinal cannabis oil. “Waldo on Weed,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, will no doubt strike a chord with those who are pot-inclined. More than the film’s activist message, however, it’s writer-director Tommy Avallone’s portrait of whatever-it-takes parental risk and sacrifice that will help it resonate with audiences no matter their views on marijuana.
Born a whopping 13 lbs, 8.5 oz, the enormously named Waldo James Mysterious Dwyer was your typical adorable infant until, at six months, he received his dire diagnosis and was put on a chemotherapy regimen that made him sick and miserable. Luckily for Waldo, however, dad Brian — the gregarious owner of a Philadelphia pizza shop, whose tufts of red hair coordinate nicely with his beard — and uncles Mike Wert and Larry Anderson had a possible solution: cannabis oil, which contains onlythe CBD element of marijuana plants (the part that doesn’t get you high), and which many online reports argued was responsible for curing illnesses. The problem was that the product was illegal under Pennsylvania law, thus compelling Brian to travel to California to obtain the oil and then covertly mail it back home in packages disguised at birthday gifts.
Administering a daily pin-drop of oil to Waldo had immediate miraculous effects, including less nausea, enhanced mood and greater physical strength and activity, to the point that the couple stopped giving him the rest of his at-home prescription drugs. Following his six-month chemo program, Waldo was cancer-free. Though he’d suffer a subsequent, less-calamitous recurrence, Brian and Danielle blamed that on their decision to wean Waldo off the oil. More cannabis was their answer, and as Avallone’s film illustrates through copious footage shot by Brian during every step of his family’s journey, the kid was soon developing into a healthy, happy, musically inclined toddler.
Executive-produced by Whoopi Goldberg, “Waldo on Weed” intersperses the infant’s saga with interviews of individuals on both sides of the medical-marijuana aisle. Opponents dub the drug “the snake oil of the 21stcentury” while supporters — be they scientists or growers like Matt Rize — contend that the wealth of anecdotal evidence about cannabis’ medicinal benefits should spur greater research. In those passages, it’s clear that no concrete conclusions can be drawn about precisely what role cannabis played in Waldo’s recovery, especially since he was simultaneously undergoing significant chemotherapy.
At the same time, Brian’s copious home movies make it hard to dismiss his and Danielle’s claims that the oil worked. More movingly, they provide an intimate on-the-ground view of a highly personal ordeal, and the fact that, faced with their son’s possible death, they let nothing stop them in trying to stave off tragedy. Those intimate snapshots underscore the ethics of their actions, which — despite a treatment that, at worst, was a “hail Mary” with no ostensible downside — alienated Brian from co-workers and family (at least until his sister got her own terrifying diagnosis).
Avallone doesn’t overplay the story’s sentimentality, keeping a tight reign on Andrew Thiboldeaux’s springy score. Moreover, his decision to lean heavily on Brian’s confessional clips — especially once the clan departs Pennsylvania for greener West Coast pastures — imparts a sense of DIY cinema as a vehicle for both therapy and advocacy.