In Theaters: My Sister's Keeper
The opening scenes of My Sister's Keeper depict a family that razzes one another at the dinner table, cavorts on a backyard trampoline and blows bubbles at each other for laughs. It seems like a great group to be a part of, unless your raison d'être is a walking blood and bone marrow bank for your leukemia-stricken sister. With that responsibility on your shoulders, the vacations to Montana and day trips to Malibu might not seem so blissful and you just might seek medical emancipation from your parents. It sounds like the set-up to a Law & Order episode, but as My Sister's Keeper progressed through the memories of a family, it dawned on me that these are somewhat real characters reacting to real dilemmas. Wait, actual emotional depth in an American movie? A movie starring Cameron Diaz? It's crazy, I know.
We meet the aforementioned conscripted organ donor Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) in the first frame of the film, as she stares blankly into a mountain lake and reminisces via voice-over how she was genetically engineered for the sake of her ailing older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Over the past eleven years, through nearly a dozen operations, much of Anna has been transferred to Kate, a loving gift that bonds them as best friends. The cycle ends curiously when Kate needs a kidney for a last-ditch transplant. Anna straps on her backpack, takes a bus downtown, pawns her gold locket, and marches into the office of a well-advertised lawyer, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin).
Despite the simple set-up, this is not just a glorified Judging Amy episode. Director Nick Cassavetes tells the story of the Fitzgerald family with competing voice-overs and chronological shifts that keep the difficult subject matter digestible. The girls' mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), a former attorney, created a human being to save her child, so getting served with a lawsuit by her own daughter only strengthens her resolve. Sara's husband Brian (Jason Patric) anchors the family, a stoic firefighter attempting to smother the flames of his conflagrant household. Jesse (Evan Ellingson), Anna and Kate's dyslexic and forgotten brother, struggles to command anyone's attention and it the only underdeveloped character in the at-times claustrophobic plot.
Co-writers Jeremy Leven and Cassavetes intersperse the script's familial strife with tender moments that effectively walk the line between maudlin and memorable. During one trip to the oncologist, Kate meets the James Dean of teenage cancer patients (Thomas Dekker). Their chemo-laced whirlwind romance is reminiscent of the idealism and sweetness found in Cassavetes's previous heartwrencher The Notebook, but you can guess how that ends. Breslin and Vassilieva complement each other as sisters and actresses, alternating emotional pitches so that neither outshines the other. Baldwin plays his character role with class, providing occasional easy laughs, mostly at the expense of his service dog named Judge. But the best performance comes from Diaz, who eclipses her previous heavy roles and pulls off the tricky determined mother persona without turning impassioned care into grating shrillness.
The performances find their way to the forefront of My Mother's Keeper because the characters never have to make grand statements about childhood or cancer or the meaning of life that sound like something from a hospice pamphlet. Any philosophizing or deep thoughts are lost in the more important ideas of family unity and sibling bonds. Yes, it's a melodrama, but the reserved performances and time manipulation elevate it from women's cable channel material (what three of Jodi Picoult's other novels became) to a worthwhile cinematic experience. The MacGuffin here is Anna's kidney, but in the end, it matters less than the shared experience of a family. RATING: 7