REVIEW: My Sister’s Keeper [2009]

“I’m sorry I let them hurt you”

I have not read the Judi Picoult novel for which the new film My Sister’s Keeper is based, and I think that is a good thing. Whether I would have thought the movie did or didn’t live up is beside the point as, from the scuttlebutt at the completion of the screening around me stated, the endings are completely different. Truthfully, I think I like the cinematic conclusion much better than the literary one, if these audience members are to be believed. What they say transpires in the novel is just plain emotional overload; tragedy for the sake of being as tragic as you can be. That is not what the film is about. Yes, it is a tough story to endure and causes multiple moments of “manning up” to hide the tears begging to escape, but it is also a tale of hope, family, forgiveness, and the meaning of life. Sure there is a young girl dying of cancer before our eyes and sure young Anna was created to save her, however, what this brave girl really ends up doing is saving her family. And that is something I don’t see happening by the book ending.

If you have seen the trailer, you know what you are in for. Kate has leukemia and is dying from a very early age, only prolonged due to the chemotherapy and her little sister. This sibling, Anna, was a test-tube baby, devised as a cure—a literal spare parts factory. The family’s mother gave up her law practice to stay home and be there for her daughter while the father works as a firefighter and does what he can to bring money in. As Brian Fitzgerald says, being the parent of a sick child is a full-time job. Sara’s main focus is in saving her daughter, no matter what, even sometimes to the detriment of her other children. Brother Jesse is neglected in his schooling and Anna is looked upon to endure excruciatingly painful procedures, at risk to her own wellbeing, in the hopes they help Kate. As the day of reckoning looms closer, Anna finds a lawyer and decides that she is finished being a lab rat—she wants to live her own life without worrying. The Fitzgerald family was already hanging by a thread and this action is the last straw, threatening to break them apart forever.

Whereas the story itself is somewhat obvious, (why is it that Anna decides now to stand up for her rights?), it is with everything else that surprises. Number one on that list is Cameron Diaz. I am a self-proclaimed non-fan of this A-list actress for a number of reasons. I believe she has gotten by on her looks, which confuses me to no end, and, of late, has been looking way too old to play the roles she has, namely the bubbly blonde airhead. Here, however, she is a mother that cannot accept the fact that her daughter is dying, a mother that lets the pragmatic lawyer come to the surface, micromanaging in a utilitarian way, seeing that her dying child needs help and that pain for her other daughter is justified. The grief, the tiredness, the dedication, and the hidden love behind a stiff façade of mechanics rather than heart all show on her face. Probably her best performance ever, Diaz is playing someone her own age and shows that she can act if given the chance. I thought she did well in In Her Shoes, and she builds on that success here. I hope she sticks with it because this is a Cameron Diaz I could watch.

Nick Cassavetes, director and co-writer of the film, is the second surprise. Son of prolific auteur John Cassavetes, I used to laugh at his early work. I mean John Q is far from a masterpiece and then there is the infamous The Notebook, the film lingering with the potential of being forced to watch on request by every man’s girlfriend. But 2006 brought the solid Alpha Dog and, coupled with My Sister’s Keeper, maybe that Nicholas Sparks yarn no longer appears as scary as it once did. Cassavetes shows a nice touch in tempering the emotionally draining with subtle comic relief. You get inside of each character, learning what they think during their moment of voiceover and flashback. I loved the collaged scrapbook as well. What a powerful little prop that expressed so much of the past as well as so much hope for the future.

The acting is stellar throughout, including some stalwarts like Jason Patric as father Brian and Alec Baldwin in a rare serious role as lawyer Campbell Alexander. Even Joan Cusack brings some emotional weight in a role as the lawsuit’s judge, her life mirroring that of Diaz’s Sara. Evan Ellingson is also very effective as Jesse, the keeper of Anna’s secret and silent presence of strength for the family, watching everything fall apart, trying his best to stay sane and hope it all works out. And you can’t say enough about young Abigail Breslin, my vote for best child actor around. Dakota Fanning has nothing on this one as Breslin acts with the poise of an adult while still being a child rather than a twenty-year-old in a twelve-year-old body.

The real shining star, however, is Sofia Vassilieva as Kate. This is a powerful performance that resonates every single second. Combining the angst of an adolescent with the pride and vanity of a young girl who has lost her hair and a body slowly shutting down, this young lady captures the pain and heartbreak perfectly. Oftentimes too, that heartbreak is not for her mortality, but instead for what her condition is doing to those she loves. You will see the helplessness in her eyes as she watches the tears, anger, and frustration of those trying to fight for her life. But, through flashbacks, we also catch glimpses of the moments in her life that helped her feel like a normal kid. Thomas Dekker’s Taylor is a big part of this, but her family is as well. Those moments in the photo booth or on a trampoline amongst hundreds of bubbles are the ones that linger in your memory. They are the moments of innocence, of childhood that we hope all our children experience. My Sister’s Keeper succeeds in showing us not to take life for granted because it can be taken away without notice. Kate Fitzgerald knows this fact and she just hopes to be able to convey it to her family so that, when she is gone, they will be able to live on.

My Sister’s Keeper 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] (L-r) CAMERON DIAZ as Sara, ABIGAIL BRESLIN as Anna and JASON PATRIC as Brian in New Line Cinema’s drama “My Sister’s Keeper,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Sidney Baldwin
[2] CAMERON DIAZ as Sara and JASON PATRIC as Brian in New Line Cinema’s drama “My Sister’s Keeper,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Abigail Breslin. Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

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