MY SISTER’S KEEPER
Starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking. 109 minutes.
REVIEW BY DANIEL M. KIMMEL
In a season where movies like “Transformers” and “Year One” make it seem like Hollywood’s target audience is 14-year-olds, there’s usually one film that emerges as the prime example of counter-programming. This summer it’s MY SISTER’S KEEPER. It’s a film that might easily have turned into a maudlin tearjerker. Instead it is intelligent, moving and even occasionally funny, although you might want to bring along a few tissues just in case.
Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, with a script credited to Jeremy Leven and director Nick Cassavetes, it is the story of how grave illness impacts one family. Brian and Sara Fitzgerald (Jason Patric, Cameron Diaz) are a loving couple with two kids who receive the devastating news that their oldest, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), has leukemia. To get a compatible donor for the various transfusions and operations Kate will need they decide to have Anna (Abigail Breslin), conceived through in vitro fertilization to ensure a perfect genetic match.
The incident that sets off the plot is Kate needing a kidney transplant. Anna, apparently deciding she has had enough of being spare parts for her sister, refuses. What’s more, at age 11, she hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin in a nice turn) to sue her parents for her “medical emancipation.” She wants to be free to make her own decisions regarding her body, and not be forced to undergo painful and life-threatening procedures on her mother’s orders.
In the hands of the writers of a television lawyer show produced by David Kelley or Steven Bochco, this would be a dramatic hour where the competing moral and legal issues would be debated. We get some of that here, but that’s not the main thrust of the story. Instead, with flashbacks and changing points of view we learn how each of the characters is affected by Kate’s illness and Anna’s decision. As we discover more we come to sympathize with each one, including Jesse (Evan Ellingson), the neglected middle child.
Cassavetes has an outstanding cast, starting with Vassilieva and Breslin as the two sisters. They convey the love and pain both experience with surprising depth. Diaz long ago made it clear that she wanted to be an actress and not just another pretty face, and proves it once again here. She makes you wonder if her character’s fierce devotion to her sick daughter is the ultimate expression of love or simply fear of losing control.
However, for early Oscar handicappers the one to watch may be Joan Cusack, who is the judge in the case with her own backstory. She’s always been a plus for a film, but rarely has she gotten to play such a finely etched character. It’s too early to call the race, but she ought to be in the running for Best Supporting Actress.
“My Sister’s Keeper” is all you could want in a mainstream drama: an engrossing story, complex characters, and a team of talented professionals to bring it to life. Let the 14-year-olds have “Transformers” – this is the movie of the week.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.