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My Sisterís Keeper is The Notebook of Cancer Movies

Published June 28, 2009 in Movie Reviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of New Line Cinema
My Sister's Keeper PosterMy Sister's Keeper
My Sisterís Keeper is the The Notebook of cancer movies. It toys with your emotions like the Alzheimer’s romance, but since this is about medical ethics, it’s even more sensitive. It actually had me hating it a bunch of times.

Review: My Sister's Keeper

Anna (Abigail Breslin) was born and engineered specifically to be a match for her Leukemic sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). At 11-years-old, she files for medical emancipation from her parents (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) because she doesn’t want to give up a kidney in the latest round of procedures. So you can’t deal with that issue without showing a side that’s going to be frustrating to someone’s beliefs.

The viewpoint that will be controversial is that just staying alive isn’t all there is to life. Living the life you’re given matters. Now losing a child is the worst thing ever. No one needs a film to make that point. What the film shows is that no one is absolved from having a hard life. Some people, even kids, have had enough and some don’t think it’s worth all the effort to save them. Plus, you can’t save people at all costs just because you want to. The film forces its characters to deal with that.

The judge tells Mom that she can’t remove her daughter from the very issue she’s fighting. The doctors force her to acknowledge that hospice care is an option. Not a recommendation, just to acknowledge that it’s something available. The reality is there. The mom even acknowledges the value of having a boyfriend, so she’s not THAT overprotective.

When they actually have the big picture talk, I was wowed. The film addresses the problem with focusing on your own perspective when there is still a real world going on around you. Also, no one’s poo poo’ing mom’s good intensions. They’re just saying it doesn’t make her automatically correct, for herself or Kate. Wanting to save her can be the right desire, but still the wrong action.

It also touches on the importance of mutual support, though not overtly. You need a team to go through something this horrible, and even at their most heated, mom and dad handle things without ego.

No one’s more right in the situation, but the reality is either choice could happen. They could take Anna’s kidney for one last shot at eeking out another few years for Kate, or they could call it quits and make peace with the situation they were tragically dealt. Somehow the film doesn’t take sides. It takes 20 minutes to set it up, but after 20, I’m in.

The beginning really plays for “Look how cute living with cancer is. Look how whimsical an overprotective mom is.” That’s such the Hollywood take on excusing a disease of the week story. It pissed me off that the parents looked so fabulous, because with all the care required for their daughter, they still work out and do their hair. Although, they did eat organic, I’ll give them that.

I really thought it was too much when they introduced that the father was a firefighter, like oh my God, look how heroic he is. When mom shaves her head in solidarity with Kate, that’s really pandering. Yours grows back. That’s just a superficial gesture. I’m not saying it’s easy to see your child in pain, I’m just saying they suck at making hard decisions. Then I reconsidered. That might be the best possible parenting choice for an average family under stress. But Diaz didn’t actually shave her head, so no Oscar for you.

When they first introduced the multiple narrators, I thought that was a cute device because they didn’t want to have the really hard talk. They show the plot out of order, so now this is the Tarantino cancer movie of the week. Then there’s a photo montage so it’s the Pretty Woman of cancer movies.

That the film could start me out feeling that way, then totally bring me around, and make me go back and forth midway, that means it must work. I still think it would have worked better without the multiple narrators. I get that the time cuts reveal stuff when it’s most important, but it’s still a stretch. Just going from A to Z would still drive the points home without distraction. I know that comes from the book, but they changed the ending to make the movie better, so you can change the structure too. By the way, I heard the ending of the book. That’s nonsense. That’s just cheating. The movie’s story actually has balls.

It had good vomit too. Kate’s retching had real volume. Through the magic of editing, she purges a real bowel-full, not some Hollywood mouthful. What, you expect me to be reverent? , but even at its best I’m still going to treat it as a Hollywood movie presenting the unfortunate situation of those less fortunate than glamorous movie stars.

The film touched my personal life in another unexpected way. The night I got home from the screening of My Sister’s Keeper, I got a call from the Leukemia society. I’d donated to one of their mailing label drives before. This time all they wanted me to do was stamp and mail 15 letters from a kit they’ll send me in the mail. So on the day I got all worked up about Leukemia, the charity gives me this opportunity to help and almost no cost (just the stamps). That’s The Secret.

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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of New Line Cinema

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