While all you poor saps were sitting through the bombastic train wreck I understand Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to be (I’ll be seeing it shortly), I was sitting through the ‘Anti-Transformers’ movie of the weekend, much like Mama Mia was the Anti-Dark Knight last summer. The theater I was in was actually packed with people, so much that when an older gentlemen with a walker came in, the groups that took up each handicap spot avoided each other’s gaze, because whoever stood for him was going to have very limited choice in seating. In the end none of them stood. Assholes.
It was an ironic beginning for a movie entitled My Sister’s Keeper, a play on the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To which the answer is, indubitably, ‘Yes,’ since the person asking is Cain, the first murderer. Apparently, those in the handicap section forgot that, and let the old man find his own damn seat.
Now, for starters, I give you a warning. Only go see this movie if you want to have your emotions manipulated like Play-Doh. If you’re not willing to sit through some sappy, melodramatic scenes, you’d best get your tears elsewhere. I understand there’s “Transformer’s Heaven” in that other movie, I’m sure that’s pretty touching. Everything in this movie is written to shape your emotions as the creators desired. So if you’re willing, it does a decent job at it.
That’s not saying this movie, about a family struggling through a fifteen-year-old’s battle with cancer, doesn’t have some genuine moments. There’s some real drama mixed in with the melodrama. My point is that the film works really, really, hard to get you to cry, with everyone involved. As if the battle with cancer wasn’t enough, they decided to have a very minor character have an entire scene devoted to her struggle coping with the death of her 12 year old daughter. Necessary? Absolutely not. But my theater was sniffling.
Which is to say one thing about the movie: it is very well acted. The character mentioned above is actually the Judge in the court case I will explain very shortly, and she’s played well by Joan Cusack. When this relatively unimportant character draws tears from the audience, it must be a fine actress playing the part. And the rest of the cast does a great job as well. There’s only one weak link, the son played by Evan Ellingson, but he’s still more than acceptable. He’s also given the most melodramatic role to play at the film’s climax, so the writing could be to blame.
The film is about (finally, a synopsis) the Fitzgerald family working through the cancer struggle of their fifteen year old daughter, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). The mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), is a fierce, relentless warrior-mom, doing everything she possibly can to let her daughter survive. The father Brian (Jason Patric) is a little mellower, and tries to ensure his daughter’s happiness. But when it becomes clear Kate is going to need a lot of tough medical work, the two decide the best route is to create little Anna, played by Abigail Breslin. Abigail is genetically engineered en vitro to be a perfect match for Kate, a bag of organs and blood that will be able to swap sisters when Kate really needs it. And she does, a lot. We find out Anna has undergone numerous procedures, some fairly serious, by the time she is 11, all in the name of helping her sister. But one day, little 11 year old Anna walks into the law office of Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), who thinks she’s selling girl scout cookies. Turns out, she wants to sue her parents for the medical rights to her own body. They have recently learned Kate needs a new kidney, or she will go into complete renal failure and die. Turning to their spare-daughter once more, Anna seems to decide she can’t take it. The risks of having one kidney, and the cost it will lay on her later in life (she couldn’t be as active as the other girls, would have to be more careful, there are more risks in pregnancy, etc. etc.) is too high. “I’m important too!” She screams at her mother, who had slapped her when she was first served the legal papers.
If that sounds like an interesting premise, it is. The movie breaks the melodrama just enough to raise the interesting, ethical questions that the film is actually dealing with. And it is an intriguing one. “Can you bring a child into being in order to harvest her organs for another? What are the repercussions? What does it do to the child? To the family? Okay, now more crying.” After the initial questions are asked, it brings them back up only every now and then. Brian, in particular, seems to understand the dilemma, more than Sara, who thinks Anna is killing her sister. But the question is largely forgotten so we don’t have to be all philosophical while we weep.
As I said, the film is acted very well. Each character does exactly what their role calls for them. And even when it doesn’t call for much, they make that position worth watching. The two female children are fantastic. Sofia Vassilieva is spectacular and moving as the dying Kate, who is a child in years but an adult in tribulations. She conveys just the right emotions at just the right time, with one rather hilarious exception where those in charge decided, in one of the film’s many flashbacks, that Kate went through a rebellious, emo stage. That’s the only time Kate didn’t work. She was usually just a sweet natured girl, trying to live in the situation she was put in.
Then there’s Abigail Breslin, who is not only an adorable child actress, but also immensely talented. Abigail, I beg of you, don’t walk the path that so many have before you! She really is too sweet and too talented to fall the way of Lindsay Lohan. (For those who are unaware, Abigail is already an Academy Award nominated actress). She plays Anna perfectly, protective of and devoted to her sister, who is clearly her best friend. She and Vassilieva give moving performances, worthy to melt even the coldest of hearts.
Brian and Jesse Fitzgerald are backgrounds in this matriarchal family structure. Brian is a good father, who has “lost the love of his life” according to Kate, since Sara has dropped everything to help her daughter, including her husband. Brian doesn’t resent this, and understands the struggle. He cares immensely for his daughter’s happiness, and it shows. Jesse is a largely forgotten character. It’s implied he’s somewhat of a delinquent, a subplot that is much more fleshed out in the original novel. But even he gets some sweet moments in. And an incredibly cheesy one where he tears up a painting and let’s it blow off the top of a building.
Cameron Diaz’s first foray into cinematic motherhood is an interesting one. I don’t think it was her fault that Sara came off as such a bitch, but just the way the character was formed. She makes it quite clear her loyalties lie with her eldest daughter, and her eldest daughter alone. But even so, she is incredibly blind, and never realizes that the person who should be the most upset about Anna’s decision, isn’t, and in fact the two sisters seem closer than ever. Anna isn’t a selfish girl wanting her sister to die, but Sara just can’t lose, and shields herself from the glaring truth: Kate wants it to end. Sara has never listened to her when she’s spoken like that, always telling her to keep pushing, so Kate has to resort to getting her younger sister to fight the battle for her. And though Sara is stubborn, she is doing it for all the right reasons, and it would be hard to judge a person in her situation. And she has glimmering moments of kindness. She shaves her head bald to look like her daughter, she gets giddy when taking pictures of her daughter before a dance, and she has perhaps the most moving transformation of the movie.
I would also like to compliment Thomas Dekker, who plays Taylor, Kate’s boyfriend and inspiration for part of the film, who naturally has cancer as well. Though it comes to a tragic and predictable end, their romance is pretty genuine. It has the innocence of their youth but the weight of maturity, as they both understand the uncertainties of tomorrow. Yeah, it’s a little awkward because he looks ten years older, and it’s strange seeing the two bald patients spooning in the nude (blech), but it was a nice relationship to watch. He definitely has a little Edward Cullen in him, seeing as he was quiet and expressionless for the better part of his presence. But he also didn’t make me want to hit him, something Edward Cullen does every time he’s on screen.
Oh, and we can add this to the “Movie’s I’ve laughed in more than Year One list.” Sure, a lot of the laughter is of the “Oh thank God, some comic relief after watching the young chemo-patient throw up into a trashcan,” variety, but it’s laughter nonetheless.
The ending of the movie is sad, but predictable. Unless, of course, you’ve read the book, which ends completely differently. And for those who thought the movie was depressing, you better be glad they altered it. In the book, the end actually has Anna getting in a car crash and being left brain dead. Her lawyer, Campbell Alexander, has the rights to make her medicinal decisions (since they had won their lawsuit) and has them give Kate her kidney. The book ends with Anna dying, and Kate surviving the transplant, but still sick with cancer. Damn, now that’s a real bummer.
One of the more glaring complaints I have with this movie is that the first third is told largely in voice over vignettes from different members of the family. This was likely done to keep the style of the book, which alternates narrators between chapters, but it’s a tactic that ultimately does not work in film. There’s quite a large chunk of movie spent on sad montages and a dramatic voice over, a tactic I thought distracted from the film and convoluted the style. It worked quite well in Watchmen, but here it never really added much, but was used because they couldn’t think of another way to get their point across.
So did I cry in this movie? No. My eyes welled a few times, but a tear never fell. My theater, however, was full of sniffles that actually made it hard to hear the movie. Now I’ve said this movie is melodramatic, and it was, and it’s one of its greatest faults. There’s a difference between a story that is sad and packaging sadness in story form in order to illicit an emotion from your audience. With every little piece of the film trying to get you to cry, I wonder if Kleenex had some investment in this film. It gets exhausting, and I would have rather them tried to make a movie that happened to be sad than try to flood the world with the tears of the viewers.
But it has some truly genuine moments, and has that fantastic ethical premise, with strong outings from all involved. So if you want to be moved (superficially and legitimately), this is a good movie to go to.