I first watched this movie unintentionally, flying over the Atlantic on our way back from Ireland. And I just finished reading a dozen or so critics’ reviews. After viewing a handful of other “cancer” movies recently, I am ready to share two observations. First that the most authentic and balanced treatments of our disease in cinema tend to come from smaller, indie productions. Second that reviewers with a very personal experience with cancer probably see these movies differently than others.
My Sister’s Keeper is not without merit and certainly belongs in our library of movies dealing with cancer. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know that the central conceit of this movie involves the sister of a young cancer patient taking her parents to court over control of her body – “medical emancipation” of a minor. As it turns out this movie is not really a courtroom drama.
Anna (Abigail Breslin) is the protesting sister of Kate (Medium’s Sofia Vassiliera) , the 15 year old leukemia patient. Diagnosed at age three, her parents decide to conceive a genetically-engineered sibling in order to provide a matched source of cord blood, bone marrow, and other body parts. At the point of the movie Kate needs a kidney. It is now that Anna resists further harvesting. Parents are played by Cameron Diaz, a lawyer who gave up her successful career to care for Kate full-time, and Jason Patric, a fire chief supporting the family while becoming marginalized from the family drama. “Also appearing” are underwritten parts for the brother and aunt. Alec Baldwin plays the local attorney-TV personality who takes Anna’s case. Joan Cusack gives the film’s most nuanced performance as the judge dealing with grieving issues of her own.
Everyone does a credible job of acting without anyone really standing out. This should be a small drama about a very pressing issue. In this care the casting of “big stars” detracts from the story. Diaz usually plays lighter roles and Baldwin is overused these days as variations of the big lawyer/executive/etc. While more subtle dialogue might have made a finer point, this movie consistently shoots for melodramatic zingers – after the initial confrontation between mother and lawyer – “For a minute there you almost convinced me that you cared (about Kate)” – “For a minute there I almost thought you did too.”
The younger stars fare better. The Kate character matures as the film progresses, growing wiser beyond her years as her leukemia progresses. I suspect that this is not an uncommon phenomenon with child survivors. The style of the movie is more inventive than the script. Some critics were distracted by the frequent voice-overs. But in circulating the narratives among the major characters, we become focused on how intimately this illness has personally affected everyone involved.
The brief romantic interlude between Kate and another leukemia victim, Taylor, has been criticized as too convenient and expendable (the storyline drops with Taylor’s death). I found that those awkward interactions highlighted how chronic illness shapes and molds the developing lives of children. Few but cancer survivors themselves will appreciate the import of their first conversation. “Hi, I’m AML” “I”m APL” – “A rare one” Exchanging diagnoses disguised as identity. Their friendship also illustrates how people with cancer learn to search out blessings. “If I didn’t have cancer, I would have never met you!”
Likewise the very fleeting portrayals of medical procedures – a very young child’s body, partially covered by blue surgical dressing, backside exposed for bone marrow harvest – confront us with the harsher aspects of cancer treatment. Taylor holding the emesis basin for Kate’s nausea reinforces how otherwise bizarre transactions become normal and familiar for people dealing with chronic illness.
When Anna asks Kate late in the film, “Are you in pain?”, her reply foreshadows later developments “My whole life is a pain!” The movie is based on a book by the same name by Jodi Picoult. The endings are different with the movie’s version more honest and illuminating. Having highlighted the film’s numerous excesses, I would concede that having tissues handy while watching My Sister’s Keeper is advisable. Scenes between Kate and her mother, Kate and her sister are delicately and painfully handled. Anyone with cancer has been there or imagined being there. Most films in which cancer is a leading character concern the lives of adults. In dealing directly with childhood cancer, this films explores the complicated, interconnecting strands of ethics, parenthood, loss, emotional and physical pain, and growing up too soon. And that is reason enough to see My Sister’s Keeper.
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My Sister’s Keeper – movie version