'My Sister's Keeper' Turns on the Waterworks

New Line Cinema

City Pulse | June 22, 2009
Nick Cassavetes' three-hankie weepy lurches during moments of music-video sequences, and gratuitous voice-over narration from members of the Fitzgerald family as they struggle with their terminally ill daughter Kate (well played by Sofia Vassilieva). Parents Sara (Cameron Diaz in the best performance of her career to date) and Brian (played by the ever-dependable Jason Patric) made an ethically challenging decision when they chose to conceive a second daughter, Anna (Abigail Breslin), as a genetically engineered resource to physically help keep leukemia-stricken Kate alive. At eleven, Anna decides that she wants to be legally exonerated from her bodily responsibilities to Kate, and seeks medical emancipation with the aid of Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), a successful ambulance-chasing attorney. A court battle, overseen by an especially perceptive Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack), looms while Kate pursues romance with a cancer-suffering patient named Taylor (Thomas Dekker). The crux of the drama comes down to Sara's ability as a mother to see beyond her involuntary urge to fight like a martyr for the life of a daughter whose pain and suffering must eventually come to an end. In spite of some of its less than elegant editorial decisions, My Sister's Keeper is full of terrific performances all around. Joan Cusack is phenomenal as a judge recovering from the loss of her own daughter, and Abigail Breslin confirms her status as one of the most gifted young actors in the business.

Co-written by Jeremy Leven and Cassavetes, the film is based on the Jodi Picoult's 2004 novel, and blunders whenever the filmmaker puts himself between the material and his actors. The movie opens with Anna's narration, showing off her mature-for-her-age comprehension of how "most babies are accidents" because "only people who have trouble making babies actually plan for them." The language is a little to cutesy for the material -- it feels like it came from a romantic comedy -- and tilts the drama too far toward Anna as a would-be protagonist, while that barley obscured obligation falls much more squarely on the shoulders of Kate, who finds a number of unusual ways to mediate the family crisis that is her life and consequently trickier aspects of the narrative.

Anna is expected to soon donate one of her kidney's to Kate when she enters Campbell Alexander's office to request his legal defense in getting her off the hook for the surgery. After years of donating blood and bone marrow, with the effect of limiting the activities that she can or will ever be able to participate in, Anna's medical predicament is an especially sensitive one to Campbell, whose own physical defects cause him no end of public humiliations, as we discover later on.

Anna's legal action causes a blow out rift with her mother, who runs both-guns-blazing into Campbell's office to confront the clear-eyed attorney in a well crafted dramatic scene that sets the stage for the courtroom sub-plot that distracts from Kate's daily struggles with chemotherapy as a toxic balm to her cancer ravaged body.

My Sister's Keeper manages to encompass the complexities of a disjointed family acting with best intentions in a medical calamity that necessarily involves a battery outside influences. If only Cassavetes could have trusted the film enough to leave out the distancing montage music sequences and beside-the-point narration he could have approached a perfect drama. Nonetheless, with the aid of a great cast, he has made a movie that will relieve six months worth of tears for audiences willing to take its cathartic journey.

(New Line/Warner Bros) PG-13. 106 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
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