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.

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