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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

My Sister’s Keeper (review)

May Induce Nausea

There came a point, deep into the melodramatic morass of My Sister’s Keeper, when it suddenly struck me: Cancer, the way most films deploy this Big Scary Thing, is pretty much the same as the Empire State Building or the White House getting blown up… by a fleet of invading aliens… while the beloved war-hero President escapes in the nick of time. And director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, John Q) is the Michael Bay of chick flicks. Subtlety? Not only not necessary: not desirable. Guys want to see armies of giant extraterrestrial robots battling it out with U.S. army tanks in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Chicks want to see sad-faced little girls with sallow eyes and bald heads frolicking in slo-mo on the beach as they come to terms with the fact that they’re going to die too, too young.
I’m exaggerating, of course: not all guys and not all girls want what Hollywood tells us we’re supposed to want, but enough do that My Sister’s Keeper will have millions wailing that it’s all so, so, very, very sad. Who am I to tell them that it isn’t?


Who I am is a movie lover who prefers to actually feel the emotion a film would like me to feel, instead of having it yanked out of me unearned and therefore not truly felt at all. Keeper — based on the novel by Jodi Picoult [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — relies far too much on shorthand that assumes you share its point of view instead of making you understand where it’s coming from. It’s probably true that some people, in their last few days of a life cut tragically short, would like to spend a day at the beach looking at the ocean and contemplating [insert whatever deep philosophical thoughts the ocean might possibly inspire you to feel if you could imagine having only a few days left to live]. It might be nice if we knew what 16-year-old leukemia-stricken Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva: TV’s Medium) was thinking about right then, but that would be a far more complicated movie than My Sister’s Keeper has any ambitions about being. All it wants us to know is: She’s 16! She’s beautiful! She’s dying! Wah!

As is always the hell of movies that you wish were better than they are, Keeper starts off with an intriguing premise: What would happen if a child conceived as a biological donor to her desperately ill older sister suddenly decided she was done being poked, prodded, and sucked dry of her bone marrow? This is the decision that 11-year-old Anna (Abigail Breslin: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Definitely, Maybe) has come to as the film opens. And she hies herself to a lawyer she’s seen advertising on TV, Alec Baldwin’s (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, The Good Shepherd) Campbell Alexander, so that she can sue her parents for “medical emancipation,” so that she can decide whether or not she should give a kidney to Kate, who really is finally on death’s doorstep after a lifetime of chemo and radiation and remission and resickness.

Oh no! Little brat Anna wouldn’t heartlessly deny sweet, serene too-young-and-beautiful-to-die Kate a much-needed organ, would she? Pul-leeze. As if anything so cruel would happen in a movie that is itself like that last rush of endorphins they tell us floods our bodies to prepare us for death: My Sister’s Keeper wants you to sob, but with bittersweet acceptance and saccharine grief, not with rage or anger or denial. This is not one of those ugly, realistic movies about sickness and death — which isn’t to say that there isn’t real power in Vassilieva’s performance, and in her bravery in actually submitting to a shaved head and makeup that does render this pretty young actress uncomfortably sickly onscreen. But who is the “villain” here? It’s Cameron Diaz (Shrek the Third, The Holiday) as the girls’ mother, Sara, because of her denial. However realistic her rage is, it is not given the same gentle treatment that the path of giving up and giving in is accorded.

So it should come as no surprise that the hard, almost unanswerable question of medical ethics the film starts out asking is unceremoniously tossed aside in favor of shameless sentimentality and standard — and, pardon the pun, done-to-death — feel-good-while-feeling-bad histrionics. And the excellent performances by the entire cast (including Jason Patric [The Alamo, Speed 2: Cruise Control] as Dad and Joan Cusack [War, Inc., Martian Child] as the judge assigned to Anna’s case) all end up sacrificed on the altar of schmaltz.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Paul

    I’m almost afraid to see the movie now. I read the book, and the author vinidicated everyone’s choices in the end. There was conflict without villianization. I actually do think the ending of the novel cheated a little to achieve this, but that’s debateable. It was an interesting case of a writer trying to eat her cake and have it, too, but over all a good book.

  • John Ross

    My younger sister died of leukemia at age 19. It nearly destroyed my whole family. Why would anyone in their right mind want to make a movie like this? If it’s as didactic as John Q, I can’t even imagine.

    I think movies like this should only be allowed to be made by people who have been through a similar experience. Because if they had been through such an experience, they wouldn’t in a million years want to make a movie about it and we would never get movies like My Sister’s Keeper.

  • brooke

    you know, every one is entitled to their own opinion, but sometimes i notice some people only say mean things because they are not happy with their own lives. This book was GREAT and i cannot wait until i get to see the movie.

  • John Ross

    Fair enough. But I can tell you that if you actually knew someone who endured this disease and died from it, the idea of seeing this movie would feel ghoulish and sickening to you. But I guess you should consider yourself lucky.

  • ah

    I was so excited to see this movie as I LOVED the book – I’m a huge Jodi Picoult fan—however, I barely recognized it — there are MAJOR plot changes, very FEW insights into characters and their actions — like in the book — and overall very DISAPPOINTING…

  • Paula

    This is the most emotionally brutal tear jerking movie I have ever seen. I cannot even put my finger on why it hit me so hard, but I can tell you one thing in complete 100 percent honesty, I HAVE NEVER CRIED in a movie before and I have seen a ton of movies at the theatre. I usually laugh at my friend at chic flicks who gets teary eyed a lot, but I have to say I had to put my head in my husbands chest to keep the whole theatre hearing my bawl my head off. Afterwards I went to the ladies room and can tell you I was not the only one in there blowing my nose from a full all out bawl. I have never done that in my entire life!

    Bottom line, this movie brings up every emotion to the surface you keep to yourself when you love someone so deeply. It really puts your priorities in order. After you see this movie, all you want to do is get your mind off of it as soon as possible. I wanted to immediately go see a comedy so I didn’t have to think about the emotions I was feeling. During the scene where the family is in her hospital room right before she sends them all away so she can be alone with her mom, all I could think about was I could not possibly deal with this type of loss. I couldn’t even watch of listen to this scene anymore cause I broke down and bawled like a baby and didn’t want to see anymore of this movie at all.

    I have never been a crybaby or a person that breaks down, but this movie brought me to a level I have never let myself go before. And I never want to go there again!

    Sofia Vassilieva’s acting was so genuine. I truly hope she gets nominated for an oscar. The movie was emotionally wrenching but has to be one of the best movies I have ever seen and never wish to see again (for obvious emotional reasons).

  • tay

    if you read the book i do not recommend seeing this movie. You will be very disappointed. Main characters were left out, and the wrong person dies at the end!!

  • Kate


    Ugh. I went to see this cheesefest only for the intriguing lawsuit filed by her youngest sibling against her parents to stop them from taking her kidney. Interesting moral dilemma, I thought…too bad it turned out to be totally eradicated by the “plot twist” (cancer girl wanted to die and asked her little sister to do this). Gah, why can’t filmmakers actually go for the compelling, ugly dilemmas, like the little sister really just didn’t want doctors to extract her organs? Stupid easy cop-outs. Stupid mainstream Hollywood cop-outs.

  • Andrew

    Man, if you don’t want to see armies of giant extraterrestrial robots battling it out with U.S. army tanks in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, I just don’t want to know you. That is an awesome thing!

  • MaryAnn

    you know, every one is entitled to their own opinion, but sometimes i notice some people only say mean things because they are not happy with their own lives. This book was GREAT and i cannot wait until i get to see the movie.

    Every critic of anything must be downright miserable all the time then.

    I’d love to hear what you think of the movie, brooke…

    Man, if you don’t want to see armies of giant extraterrestrial robots battling it out with U.S. army tanks in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, I just don’t want to know you. That is an awesome thing!

    If the Doctor is on hand to try to stop it, I could probably be onboard with this…

  • dee


    john ross…i am so sorry to hear of your loss ( i hope i dont sound trite) and i can completely understand why this movie would sound like it is really insenstive

    on the other hand, the whole point of the book was to show that you never see what’s coming round the corner and that life is really precious.

    i’m soo mad that cassavetes made it into a simplified chick flick tearjerker! the story has so much potential and for the wrong person to die just ruins it!

    the story goes through 3 steps:

    1. you think at the start that anna wants to simply have control of her own body, even at the expense of her sister’s life.

    2. you come to realise that kate wanted to kill herself and had had enough but could never go through with it. so she asked anna NOT to donate her kidney so she could die. anna secretly wants this too.

    3. it turns out that kate is only doing what anna is doing for kate through filing the lawsuit. kate wants to die so that anna can have a life for herself – to play sport and to grow up without a burden.

    THEREFORE when Anna dies, the reader/viewer is meant to realise that you never know what’s coming round the corner and not to take anything for granted, even though they though they knew this already (by living with a person with a terminal illness). The kidney ends up being donated: what Anna always wanted.

    Kate dying was never the point – the reactions’ to her illness is. Anna’s sacrifice and love for her sister is, as is Kate’s sacrifice. Jesse’s inability to cope is and the parent’s inability (esp Sara’s) to look past Kate’s illness is and their lack of care of their other two children. The point is that they all make mistakes but they are all only trying to do the right thing.

  • Amy

    In response to John Ross,

    You say that people who have lived through this wouldn’t want to see this movie.

    I on the other hand have to disagree with that statement. I thought this was a great movie. I cried and yes felt a little sick at times.

    When I was four years old I was diagnosed with leukemia. I lived Kate’s life, only the end was different. Many aspects of the movie I found paralleling my life. Doctor visits, treatment, going to the beach. I was let out on Christmas Eve for 2 hours to go visit family and see the Christmas lights, just like Kate was let out to the beach. It was like parts of my life were being played out on screen.

    I knew the moment I saw the preview for this movie that I wanted to go see it.

  • No Name

    I loved the book. It was by far, the best book I’ve read. Having leukemia as a young child, it definately reached out to me. I attempted to watch the movie and was very unsuccesful. I couldn’t handle it.It brought back way to many memories for me. I recommend the book to anyone. It was excellent. The movie however, well, I’m not sure if I will watch it again – or TRY to at least – but if you like to cry, then this is definately for you.

  • Julie

    Cameron Diaz was cringe worthy. Shrill and heavy handed and totally slapable.

    One redeeming factor in this film: the parents are watching “Pleasantville” when Katie gets back from her date. At least they had decent taste in movies.

  • Saladinho

    Paul: “It was an interesting case of a writer trying to EAT her cake and HAVE it too…” Emphasis mine.

    Now I know what I might philosophize about if I’m near death and frolicking on a beach: “Someone else says it the right way round too!”

  • lynn

    I, too, LOVED the book but felt very cheated by the movie! How can you change the end of the story? It’s like the movie was based on a different book! I was very disappointed in this movie!!!!!

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