Friday, December 30, 2011

"My Sister's Keeper" (2009)

Starring Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz and Sofia Vassilieva
Written by Jeremy Leven, Doug Liman and Nick Cassavetes
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Rated PG-13: Mature content, disturbing images
Running Time: 109 Minutes

Sometimes a movie comes along and reminds you of all the joy of life and going to the movies.  "My Sister's Keeper" is not one of those movies.

Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) was engineered.  Her birth was designed, and her entire life devoted to being a donor for her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) who suffers from Leukemia.  As Kate begins to suffer from renal failure, the only option to keep her alive is to take one of Anna's kidneys.  Doing so will affect Anna's quality of life for the rest of her existence.  When Anna makes the bold decision to sue her parents for 'medical emancipation,' it begins to tear the family apart.

Anna's mother Sara (Cameron Diaz) is appalled by Anna's decision, and intends to fight it.  Before she quit to take care of Kate, she was a lawyer, and she uses those skills to fight her daughter's lawyer, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). 

The story of "My Sister's Keeper" is told in a loose, non-linear fashion.  While it may seem like the legal fight for Anna's rights to make her own medical decisions might be the focal point of the movie, the truth is that it takes a back seat to simply telling the story of the family throughout different periods of Kate's life.  While this makes "My Sister's Keeper" more of a sentimental picture, it also makes it kind of a dull one.

Structured as it is, "My Sister's Keeper" is more a series of episodes, some of which lack context.  The characters of aren't all that fully developed.  Anna and Kate's brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) just kind of mopes about the film, and we learn very little about him other than, apparently, he's an artist.  The novel the film is based upon had a subplot involving Jesse releasing his emotional problems by setting fires, but in the film all we see is him sitting on a bench leering at some hookers at one point.  We get a basic sense that he's troubled, but nothing more. 

Likewise, because so little time is spent on the courtroom drama aspect, Alec Baldwin's attorney character feels more like a cameo.  The film introduces a backstory for presiding judge (Joan Cusack), but she also has little impact on the overall movie due to such limited screentime.  The concept exists merely to elicit another flashback out of Anna rather than to contribute to any overall plot. 

There's a lot of good drama to be mined here, and the film wrings a lot of sentimentality out of its running time, but the movie does little with its inspired premise.  It seems the producers were less interested in tackling the moral and ethical dilemma of creating an entire person merely to be a donor for someone else and more about telling a rather simplistic, straight-on story about a family dealing with a dying child.  There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and in fact the film has a lot of emotional sucker punches to get the tears flowing, but it makes the whole thing seem like kind of a waste. 

In fact, it's such a good premise, I'd really rather someone take another crack at it and look at it with a bit less sentiment so that we can mine a greater meaning out of all of it other than "here's a family that loves each other."  There's a fantastic debate buried in "My Sister's Keeper," an exploration of the fact that these two parents essentially conceived a human being and then torture her for body parts her entire life.  In its current state, the film is content with essentially being a two-hour filmed scrapbook of Kate's life rather than truly exploring its own premise. 

The performances are solid all around, even for the minor characters who are barely developed.  Jason Patric is fine as Brian, Anna and Kate's firefighter father.  Thomas Dekker does well as Kate's fellow cancer patient and boyfriend Taylor.  In fact, scenes involving Dekker are probably some of the most effective in the film because he allows Kate to lead something of a normal life while undergoing her treatment, and seems to be some of her happiest moments. 

As Anna and Kate, Abigal Breslin and Sofia Vassilieva both do fine, and they work quite well with each other.  They don't much look like sisters, but they act well enough like them to overcome it.

So while "My Sister's Keeper" has a lot of emotion and solid performances, the fact that it largely eschews its own premise keeps it from being a good film.