Film Review: My Sister's Keeper

Tearjerker that aims for rarefied feelings as well as knee-jerk, sentimental moments.

Director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) pursues tears the way horror directors pursue screams. My Sister’s Keeper, which centers on a cancer-stricken child, is no exception. A master of emotional connection, Cassavetes makes us a member of the movie’s Fitzgerald family. From the outset, each person introduces us to their lives with (slightly heavy-handed) voice-overs, letting us know how the childhood cancer of Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) has ravaged their household. We are not looking at this family through a picture-glass window, but as one of them.

Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper has a deceptively catchy set-up. The youngest daughter in the family, Anna (Abigail Breslin), who was conceived to donate blood and bone marrow for her sick older sister, tracks down a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue for medical emancipation of her body. What follows, however, isn’t about legal or ethical boundaries, but the limits of love and sacrifice.

To ramp up our emotional response, Cassavetes shoots the family members in close-up, keeping the camera at eye level. Through this intimate style, it’s easy for the audience to lock eyes with the characters and feel their sadness. Even when we see them from afar, it’s usually a point-of-view shot, so that we are entirely encapsulated in this family’s struggle with cancer. They can’t escape this everyday reality, and neither can we.

Cassavetes frequently turns to slow-motion, gauzy, heavily scored scenes of the family sharing “moments” together. When the Fitzgeralds play together during a rare outing at the beach, prompting chemo-ravaged Kate to smile gratefully from her wheelchair, you can’t help but cry. Why should this family have to suffer so much? Why should their happiness be so fleeting? But as these moments are repeated, again and again, the whole film starts to feel like a strung-together home movie. Tears, instead of punctuating key moments of the drama, happen throughout.

All of the actors turn in top-notch performances. Breslin’s Anna has just as much gumption and quiet observation as her character in Little Miss Sunshine. Cameron Diaz, as the “I’ll-do-anything-for-my-child” mother, makes us understand, if not agree with, her hard-line methods. As befits a melodrama, both the lawyer (Baldwin) and judge (Joan Cusack) on the case have personal circumstances that make the situation particularly poignant to them, but each actor reveals these vulnerabilities with subtlety and skill.

For a film about cancer and death, My Sister’s Keeper is most memorable for how it tinges its sad moments with happiness, and happy moments with sadness. When you live on the brink of death, each emotion is linked with the other. Though it pulls our heartstrings the same way a few too many times, the tearful results are unchanged.