I dreaded seeing My Sister’s Keeper. And judging by other anxious viewers around me, I wasn’t alone. As a mother of young daughters, this is just the kind of thing I try to avoid (when I was given the Jodi Picoult book on which the film is based as a gift, I quickly stuffed it onto a closet shelf, never to be retrieved). It’s clear enough from the trailer’s teary-eyed smiles and “Life is Beautiful” soundtrack that this movie is going in for the emotional kill, a sort of modern-day Sophie’s Choice but worse, because it would be from the children’s point of view. No thanks.
The film begins with sort of home movie style montage, as 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) tells us she was genetically engineered as a donor child, the perfect chromosomal match to her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who is now dying of the leukemia she was found to have as a toddler. Anna herself has been through innumerable procedures and is expected to donate a kidney to save Kate. When she decides she “doesn’t want to do it anymore,” she sues her parents for medical emancipation to prevent them from harvesting her kidney and limiting her own future by extension — she won’t be able to play sports or have children, and will have to spend the rest of her life “being careful.” And yes, Anna knows full well that her decision is tantamount to a death sentence for Kate.
It is, as expected, gut-wrenching. But My Sister’s Keeper is not only that, because the legal battle, it turns out, is mostly peripheral (and so the question of whether or not Anna will end up “killing” Kate is sidestepped). The movie is more acutely focused on the Fitzgeralds’ struggle with the inevitable loss of a child to cancer, the lies they tell themselves and each other to cope. Mother Sara (Cameron Diaz) tells Anna as a baby that she was born to be their “bit of blue sky,” and father Brian (Jason Patric) tries to convince Sara that the hospital that diagnosed Kate “doesn’t know shit.” The lawsuit breaks open this pattern of deception.
Brian sees it another way, as a kind of punishment: “We went against nature,” he says, “And this was our comeuppance.” He has it partly right. The movie saves most of the comeuppance for Sara. Tenacious in her fight to save Kate at any cost, she is the closest thing the film has to a villain, not just in using one daughter to save another or in silencing Kate’s questions about death with comments like “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk,” but also in holding more power in the family than Brian. But Sara’s portrayal seems unbalanced, the fear and love that drive her barely acknowledged. When her sister (Heather Wahlquist) urges her to let Kate go, she implies that Sara’s real fear is losing her purpose in life, using weirdly sexist terminology: “Who are you if you’re not this crazy bitch mother fighting for her kid’s life?”
Director Nick Cassavetes (who also wrote the screenplay along with The Notebook writer Jeremy Leven) uses Picoult’s shifting narrator construct for the first part of the film — but do we need Brian to tell us his life looks idyllic from the outside when we can see as much through the slow motion shots of the family laughing and jumping on a trampoline through a haze of drifting bubbles? Likewise, Anna tells us early on that because the family’s focus has always been on Kate, older brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) often went unnoticed. This lessens the impact of a later scene when Jesse gets home late at night, fearing how much trouble he’s going to be in, only to find that no one realized he was gone in the first place, his face revealing a heartbreaking mix of relief and rejection.
What does work well in My Sister’s Keeper is the movement back and forth in time. Memories help us to sort through the lies and truths, confirming or denying present statements. After Anna files her lawsuit, Brian asks himself (in voiceover), “When did she start wanting to make her own decisions?” as if this is a recent development. In response we get a quick, horrible flash of Brian in scrubs, carrying a three-year-old Anna who screams and flails in her hospital gown, clearly panicked about an impending “procedure.”
But if the adults in My Sister’s Keeper are repeatedly compromised in the honesty department, Kate and Anna seem to embody truth physically, even if it is against their wills. The reality of their bodies being probed, sliced, transplanted, and medicated undermines the rationalization that this is all a good thing, but at the same time, every success perpetuates it. Kate deteriorates before our eyes, the cancer’s visible toll on her body refusing Sara’s denial and mocking every well-meaning encouragement for Kate to pray, to think positively, or to keep fighting. But Kate understands and embraces the inevitable truth her body is telling, her even if she’s not permitted to verbalize it.