My Sister's Keeper(2009)
- RatedPG /GenreDrama
Out of the mouths of babes can come words, sentiments and observations that stun the adults. And it appears a uniquely American proposition when out of one babe's mouth comes: Lawsuit.
Author Jodi Picoult's tale of two sisters, one dying of leukaemia, the other conceived to save the first, is not an indictment on a litigious society, although its premise lies in the fact that Anna (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) is suing her parents (Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric) for the rights to her own body ('medical emancipation'), which has been painfully harvested time and again for the sake of her sick sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva).
As much as Anna loves her older sister, it seems at age 11 that she desires a normal life, an impossibility if she is compelled to donate her kidney, among other things, for a futile treatment. Co-adapted by director Nick Cassavetes from Picoult's novel, the script explores, within the framework of a family/courtroom drama, the collateral damage of a life-threatening disease and how murky, dreadful feelings can be buried deep in the face of gut-wrenching familial adversity.
The story also gives voice to the complicated, confusing emotions that plague children as they come of age and develop their own will. With as unambiguous a tragedy as a child dying young, My Sister's Keeper may be viewed by some as a melodramatic tear-jerker-in fact, it is a wholly effective drama that can induce many tears.
But while Cassavetes has relevant experience, after ably directing the 2004 film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, this film is better than the tear-jerker stereotype suggests.
Frequent opportunities to cry do exist, for Kate experiences first love and heartbreak in hospital, and mother and daughter are forced to confront each other, under cross-examination, in court. However, save a few soft-focus, music-video sequences, the film does not indulge in 'tear-jerking' per se. Sure, it is unbalanced in parts, with the adults portrayed flatly-Diaz has the unenviable task of being the bitch-on-wheels, ex-lawyer mother-and supporting actor Alec Baldwin, as Anna's ill-reputed lawyer, stylishly sleepwalking through his part.
Yet the film satisfies where it does not pander or condescend: This isn't a simply case of rooting for Anna to win her case, there isn't an easy life-affirming resolution or lightning bolts of miracles, and there are morality puzzles aplenty, like when must one let go and how can one see past one's own grief and suffering to notice that in others close by.
Rising stars Breslin and Vassilieva lift the film, excelling with contrasting approaches. The former understatedly conveys her inner turmoil behind a shy, compassionate front, while the latter precisely hits the highs and lows of a stricken teenager, never once stretching the bounds of believability. Special kudos also for the under-appreciated Joan Cusack, whose scenes as a judge trying to determine Anna's maturity and grounds for emancipation, while haunted by her own recent loss, are among the best in the film.
In essence, the film is less concerned with what children do say, but more how they feel, and when others, especially parents, are ready to listen and empathise. In most cases, one expects the clamour to be heard may not be so dramatic as to require a court date, but it can be resounding nonetheless.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).