Friday, August 14, 2009

My Sister's Keeper (2009)

From the time she took her first breath, eleven-year-old Anna (Abigail Breslin) has been donating blood, tissues, and organs to her sister’s leukemia fight. Now, with a dangerous transplant operation looming, Anna decides she’s had enough. She hires a hot-shot lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents for medical emancipation. This sets the stage for My Sister’s Keeper, an adaptation of the Jodi Picoult novel, it shares its source’s main strengths and its main problem. Both book and film have a great grabber of a concept that plays on the heartstrings but neither have any way of satisfyingly resolving its central moral dilemma.

With whom do you side? Is it the young girl who is frustrated at being created for the sole purpose of keeping her sister alive? Is it the exhausted-yet-determined mom (Cameron Diaz) who won’t stop fighting until her sick child is well? This is truly a matter of life and death. It’s not easy to take a side. There are no easy answers, and the movie isn’t interested in answering them, all for the better. The movie gets by on its emotionally resonating performances (Diaz is a standout). As a result, for most of its runtime, the movie is a super-slick Hollywood tear-jerker, a three-hankie salute to disease that is shot through with nearly suffocating sentimentality. This movie is on a mission to make you cry. The only discordant notes are struck with dreary and sappy soundtrack choices, bad songs to go with terrible montages.

The courtroom drama aspect of the plot is shoved to the background, the filmmakers choosing to instead focus on the grueling medical procedures and slow-motion decay of its central girl. Young actress Sofia Vassilieva is dolled up in the trappings of a cancer-patient with admirable attention to detail from the make-up department. It’s unflinchingly frank at times. The movie barely starts and we’ve seen our first nosebleed. Vomiting blood, eerie veins under pale translucent skin, and creeping bruises also make appearances. I really should have thought twice before buying the popcorn I ended up barely touching. All the attention to medical detail creates a visceral sense of what the family (we bounce between points of view, which unfortunately means narration replaces subtext) is arguing about, grounding the melodrama in ways a network TV-movie couldn’t. This is not a film that is shy about its topic.

And yet, the movie can’t bring its varying threads to a satisfying close. Instead, it goes into emotional overdrive – albeit in a different way than in the novel – yanking on the heartstrings and massaging the tear ducts with such single-minded intensity that it would seem the filmmakers would like your sobbing to cover up the lack of conclusion. (The book and movie differ only in content, not quality). Though there is certainly an endpoint to the plot – something definitively final occurs – there is no emotional resolution. Diaz, especially, is asked to sell some rushed characterization that I just didn’t buy.

Director Nick Cassavetes, who previously directed the equally teary The Notebook, knows the time and location of the buttons to press, though. As a disease-of-the-week weeper, My Sister’s Keeper is a mostly acceptable entry. It goes through the motions, and puts it audience through the emotional wringer, even if it doesn’t quite add up in the end.

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