My Sisters Keeper Movie Review Essay

Director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) pursues tears the way horror directors pursue screams. My Sister’s Keeper, which centers on a cancer-stricken child, is no exception. A master of emotional connection, Cassavetes makes us a member of the movie’s Fitzgerald family. From the outset, each person introduces us to their lives with (slightly heavy-handed) voice-overs, letting us know how the childhood cancer of Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) has ravaged their household. We are not looking at this family through a picture-glass window, but as one of them.

Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper has a deceptively catchy set-up. The youngest daughter in the family, Anna (Abigail Breslin), who was conceived to donate blood and bone marrow for her sick older sister, tracks down a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue for medical emancipation of her body. What follows, however, isn’t about legal or ethical boundaries, but the limits of love and sacrifice.

To ramp up our emotional response, Cassavetes shoots the family members in close-up, keeping the camera at eye level. Through this intimate style, it’s easy for the audience to lock eyes with the characters and feel their sadness. Even when we see them from afar, it’s usually a point-of-view shot, so that we are entirely encapsulated in this family’s struggle with cancer. They can’t escape this everyday reality, and neither can we.

Cassavetes frequently turns to slow-motion, gauzy, heavily scored scenes of the family sharing “moments” together. When the Fitzgeralds play together during a rare outing at the beach, prompting chemo-ravaged Kate to smile gratefully from her wheelchair, you can’t help but cry. Why should this family have to suffer so much? Why should their happiness be so fleeting? But as these moments are repeated, again and again, the whole film starts to feel like a strung-together home movie. Tears, instead of punctuating key moments of the drama, happen throughout.

All of the actors turn in top-notch performances. Breslin’s Anna has just as much gumption and quiet observation as her character in Little Miss Sunshine. Cameron Diaz, as the “I’ll-do-anything-for-my-child” mother, makes us understand, if not agree with, her hard-line methods. As befits a melodrama, both the lawyer (Baldwin) and judge (Joan Cusack) on the case have personal circumstances that make the situation particularly poignant to them, but each actor reveals these vulnerabilities with subtlety and skill.

For a film about cancer and death, My Sister’s Keeper is most memorable for how it tinges its sad moments with happiness, and happy moments with sadness. When you live on the brink of death, each emotion is linked with the other. Though it pulls our heartstrings the same way a few too many times, the tearful results are unchanged.

Connoisseurs of agony in the cinema routinely torment themselves with the thought that they will never see Jerry Lewis's legendary "lost" film The Day the Clown Cried, the controversial second world war drama starring Lewis as a rascally clown who is sent to a Nazi concentration camp, but finds personal redemption there, doing gurning pratfalls to sweeten the poor children's final moments. Lewis withdrew the still incomplete film at the last moment and refuses to show it.

Instead, we will all have to make do with Nick Cassavetes's child-cancer-courage weepie My Sister's Keeper, based on the heart-tugging bestseller by Jodi Picoult, a book for which no complimentary bar of Galaxy chocolate will ever be big enough. Cameron Diaz stars as the life-affirmingly brave mom, whose teen daughter Kate has leukaemia, and whose younger daughter Anna, played by super-moppet Abigail Breslin, is now in existential revolt against the realisation that she was brought into the world specifically to be a donor for her sister.

With a fistful of savings, she has feistily engaged a roguish heart-of-gold lawyer, played by Alec Baldwin, to free herself of any more painful and possibly futile operations. Cameron has incidentally given up her own job as a hotshot lawyer to look after her sick child, but their hunky firefighter dad, played by stubbly Jason Patric, is evidently pulling down enough bucks to keep them all in a gorgeously spiffy house.

For those of you keen to undergo a 109-minute soft-focus Calvary of empathy, aspirational lifestyle choices and upscale family values with a tastefully rendered terminal illness, this is a total must. Some films have certificates like U or PG; this one should be OMG with a row of teardrops and frowny-face emoticons.

I say soft focus, incidentally, but this might not be a directorial decision. The camera lens could spontaneously have formed a welling layer of tears. Because miracles do happen. In one scene, goaded by her chemo-afflicted daughter's miserable avowals that she looks ugly with no hair, Cameron Diaz bounces defiantly into the bathroom and shaves off her own blonde crowning glory, and there's a montage showing the entire family, bald mom and all, showing some joyous solidarity on a day out to the funfair. But in the next scene, Cameron's hair has entirely grown back. There's no nonsense about one scene showing it stubbly, then another showing it short. It just grows back exactly as it was. For heaven's sake, Mr Cassavetes: show us where Cameron's hair-related miracle took place, and we will build a shrine and lay on Ryanair flights.

The film is accessorised with some very lugubrious flashbacks to sketch in the family's backstory in all its complexity. Concerned grownups will ask Anna things like: "Did you and your sister ever fight?", and Anna will go into what looks like a stunned trance, evidently beginning to remember one such argument, while the camera does an ultra-slow zoom into her face, so slow you can go out for nachos, return to your seat, and the flashback still won't have started. The girls have a troubled brother, incidentally, called Jesse, and at one stage Kate's syrupy voiceover tells us: "While everyone was worried about my blood count, I didn't even notice that Jesse was dyslexic ... "

Maybe she just thought he was stupid. They do have short attention spans in that family; Kate gets a hottie cancer-patient boyfriend whose narrative purpose is to introduce her to some sensitive love-making - falling short of the act itself - after which his departure from this life is briskly forgotten about - no funeral scene, no nothing.

Of course, Anna's sensational legal battle would seem to indicate an extremely painful rift between her and her sister. Surely, no matter how much Kate sympathises with her hurt at being just a spare-organ breeder, this would cause real sibling friction? But no. The two girls seem to maintain a glassy-eyed seraphic adoration of each other. The ultimate reason for this is revealed in a twist which is also an outrageous cop-out, a get-out clause cancelling the high concept that suckered us into the story in the first place, and which was the only risky or interesting thing about it.

In any case, there could be another reason why Abigail Breslin is reluctant to be an organ donor: her bad acting may be intended to tip us off to the fact that she is a Terminator-style robot, an Emotionator. Dig too deep into the realistic-looking tissue, and you will find diodes and steel, and that wise head on young shoulders will turn into a Chucky-style mask of rage. As it is, this is a film that looks like a feature-length infomercial for some prescription medication which should, in a sane world, be taken off the market.

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