26 June 2009 | C-Younkin
This one's a keeper
Nick Cassavetes is almost like a walking advertisement for Kleenex at this point. After such shameless melodramtic weepers like "John Q" and "The Notebook", I wasn't so keen on seeing "My Sisters Keeper", based on the book by Jodi Picoult. Yet, every once in a while, a chick flick comes along that touches the chick in every man.
Cameron Diaz plays Sara Fitgerald, who along with her husband Brian (Jason Patric), makes the decision of genetically engineering a child who will be a direct match to their leukemia-stricken 2-year-old daughter Kate. Abigail Breslin plays the engineered child at age 11. Her name is Anna, who since the age of 5, has had blood taken from her and been put thru medical procedures to help keep Kate alive. Anna loves Kate, played as a teenager by Sofia Vassileva, but when her parents want to give Kate one of Anna's kidneys, Anna finally says enough. Sure that no one is looking out for her interests, Anna hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and sues for the right to her own body. Sara, a woman who has made caring for Kate her full-time job, is upset while Brian understands. Meanwhile, Kate feels guilty that her disease is tearing the family apart.
Cassavetes and co-screenwriter Nicholas Leven are dealing with a straight-up tear-jerker here but it's astonishingly free of heavyhandedness and it cuts deep with probing questions and real emotion. These are characters with feelings and concerns, torn between such complicated issues as saving a daughter by experimenting with another, sacrificing your own body even though you know it will diminish quality of life, and dealing with how a disease can burden a family. The movie uses flashbacks (such as Kate being diagnosed as a young child, her parents being given the choice of invitro, and a very young Anna disturbingly forced into operations) and forwards (Kate lying in a hospital bed, looking at a scrapbook of her family) that add dimension. As do the switching of narrators, each character getting a chance to offer their points of view and feelings about how the diagnosis, and everything after it, has effected them.
Unfortunately it's also going in a lot of different directions, and add in a dyslexic and lost-in-the-shuffle brother (Evan Ellingson), and it's sometimes hard for Cassavete's to keep track of all of them. The second act, in particular, has very little to do with the Sara-Anna conflict and the more light-hearted scenes, such as the family frolicking happily on a beach together, seem odd because you feel like there is some contentiousness between Sara and Anna that really doesn't come out til the ending courtroom scene.
However these are small problems rendered almost excusable by powerful performances. Abigail Breslin has surpassed Dakota Fanning in all-out maturity, juggling her characters fears for her own well being with the remorse of not being strong enough for her sister. And Diaz is strong-willed but obsessive, perfect as a one-track minded mother so intent on trying to keep one daughter alive that she's not even thinking about anything else. Jason Patric is the open and understanding father and Alec Baldwin is good comic relief, playing a lawyer so cocky, he sued God. And Sofia Vassileva is nothing short of powerhouse, her heartbreaking performance rising above all the cancer make-up and bloody vomitting and nosebleeds to find Kate's burdensome guilt and brave soul. And only stone-hearts won't share in her joy as she gets dressed up and goes to prom with another terminally ill boy (Thomas Dekker).
I'm not saying this movie isn't a cheap excuse to make you cry, but as far as cheap excuses go, this one is richly made. "My Sister's Keeper" is as surprising and heartfelt a piece of work as I've seen all year long, and the acting is about as good as it comes. With this and his previous, "Alpha Dog", Cassavete's signals himself as a real filmmaker as he rarely ever hits a false note. In a year filled with movies that I've seen fail at finding the humanity in their stories, this one is a keeper.