Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva) isn’t a celebrity, isn’t a supermodel. She’s a 14-year old girl who has lived most of her childhood suffering from acute promyelocytic leukemia. Her sister, Anna (an uncharacteristically thoughtful performance by Abigail Breslin), was engineered in a test tube at the suggestion of their physician, Dr. Wayne (Jeffrey Markle).
Some readers will want to shoot me for being at all critical about this film but whether this narrative has all the working pieces or not is a different question from having a frank conversation about death or cancer which, it should be commended, the film at least attempts to do.
Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper is about a pact between sisters the nature of which you can see coming a mile away. It’s a tried and trusted plot device. Anna, now 11, seeks legal emancipation from her parents who she argues have been using her as a parts factory for her older sister’s failing body. If the last four words of the preceding sentence do not spell out for you where the plot is headed, read no further, see the movie, and enjoy it for the heartstring-tugging melodrama that it is. If not…
It’s customary to cast a beautiful actress, here Cameron Diaz as Sara Fitzgerald, in the kind of role that requires a high-powered attorney turned slaving housewife who gave everything for her child… including all the best care a high-powered attorney can afford. Not only that, but Brian Fitzgerald, Jason Patric in an arguably competent performance, happens to be a firefighter. A rich attorney marries a firefighter? What fantasy world do these caricaturesque parents live together, meet, fall in love and have kids in?
I’m not asking for a story about the struggling single mother of four about to be evicted from her hole-in-the-wall apartment. But what about the lower-middle class desk-jockey and his wife he met under less than cinematically serendipitous circumstances? Oh, that’s right… There isn’t much to work off dramatically there because it’s reality and studio executives, who themselves live in Xanadu, believe audiences will find these immediately relatable characters otherwise uninteresting. But I digress.
The film has its flaws and swims in meticulously crafted schmaltz, “I don’t mind my disease failing me but it’s killing my family, too,” yet also has well-conceived tender moments hiding in the fringes. In the same scene as the previous quotation, Kate’s voice-over mentions briefly how her brother was neglected as a result of her illness, “They barely even noticed Jesse was dyslexic.”
The narration flips around from character to character so we can hear what they’re thinking, including the attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), Anna hires with the $760 she’s saved up. He has a dog in the office with him. He jokes, “I have an iron lung and Judge helps me steer clear of magnets.” Keep an eye on that dog. We suspect that there’s more to Alexander than any of the other characters, and I wish he were given more screen time. Alec Baldwin hits the right notes of a man whose motives are concealed.
There’s also an interesting, if slightly contrived romance that develops between Kate and another patient, Taylor Ambrose (Thomas Dekker, who seems almost 10 years too old for the young Kate). Gasps abound in the audience when they share an understated yet passionate kiss (in the most trite of places, the doorstep) and then more gasps when they have sex. Can you guess what happens next? Yes, you can. Ambrose, who serves as a brief glint in Kate’s otherwise miserable existence, seems to be plucked just as haphazardly as the character was assembled, from Ptolemy, “When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia, food of the gods.”
And that, I think, is the central theme where the movie hits the few right notes. No one in the story is purely evil, and everyone has an explanation for why they became who they are. The father takes time to express genuine doubts about the ethics of their arrangement with Anna and Kate, in which Anna has had no say until now. You might ask yourself what you would have done in the mother’s position. Would you have exhausted every possibility and skirted ethics to save one of your children? Are you sure you would have made all the right choices? She did exactly according to her character, and the results weren’t perfect. That’s life.
The weak point is Jesse (Evan Ellingson). Little explanation or character development is given to him. We see inexplicably chopped up scenes of him wandering around town at night, but we have no idea what, if any, trouble he’s getting himself into. Maybe we don’t need to know…. but the way the scenes are inserted seems an afterthought as if only at the eleventh hour did the filmmakers realize they hadn’t elaborated upon the brother who knows the real story behind the litigation.
The film succeeds at making us care genuinely about each character, even the lawyer. However, it falls back on conventional mechanisms of storytelling and bland cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Patriot, Passion of the Christ) which begins with desaturated tones and slow motion revelling in sunlight to beat us in the head with all that is innocent—as if Vassilieva’s performance hadn’t already convinced us of that.
My Sister’s Keeper • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 109 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking. • Distributed by New Line Cinema