My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult’s bestselling 2004 novel, has become a fascinating, if flawed, film dissection of the sometimes harrowing realities of childhood cancer and the effects a sick child has on her family. Wrapped in an implausible courtroom battle, sparkled with several mesmerizing performances, what could have been an ordinary hospital melodrama becomes a mystery of life-and-death concerns. No secrets of the conflicted family remain buried. No member emerges unscathed. It’s a sad, and ultimately victorious tale, which is why thousands of readers loved it.

With its bioethical concerns and legal wrangling, the story seems yanked from today’s headlines. Anna Fitzgerald (played with wide-eyed eagerness by Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine fame) was conceived to be the genetic donor for her cancer-stricken older sister. But now, at age eleven, she refuses to give her sister the kidney the other girl needs to stay alive. “I’m important, too,” Anna cries. Insisting on the right to determine what is done with her own body, the pre-teen sues her parents for medical emancipation, and triggers an emotional avalanche which is the dramatic arc of the story.

There are many decisions filmmakers have to make when turning a best-selling novel into a movie. What parts or characters in the novel have to be left out to fit into the movie’s shorter format? How to translate the novel’s language of words into the movie’s vocabulary of visuals? For My Sister’s Keeper, the challenge was heightened–how to turn a sad, but eye-opening page-turner into an audience tear-jerker that wasn’t maudlin. A very difficult task.

Despite a few notable mistakes, director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) and his crew and performers did a darn good job. Alas, many film critics savaged the attempt, harping on the movie’s flaws so much that they were blind to its accomplishments. This harsh and unfair criticism means that a lot of people will not see this touching and brave movie. What shame.

For those who loved the novel, you’ll have to accept that the moviemakers made changes. You’ve all heard that the ending of the novel is quite different from the one in the movie. A surprise ending in a novel, while you’re holding the book in your hand and have control over how the information comes at you, takes your breath away with its unpredictability. But on screen such endings, whose pacing is out of your control, often backfire. Instead of being shocked and satisfied, the audience groans in disbelief. I think the filmmakers made the right decision to change the ending. It’s much more true to life–and more honest to the desires of dying teenager.

There are other things the filmmakers did right. Like the novel, the best parts go to the female characters. Casting Cameron Diaz (What Happens in Vegas)–an actress with no children, who’s known for her onscreen comedy and her off-screen romances–was a mighty risky choice to play Sara Fitzgerald, mother of three children, including two teenagers. The risk paid off. Diaz is electrifying in her role as the mother who will do anything to keep her sick daughter alive. She is ferocious, unbending, tireless. Like many real-life mothers in the same situation, Sara doesn’t want to hear anything that might contradict her obsession to bring about a miracle. She feels that by will alone she will keep her daughter alive.. Blind to the handwriting on the wall, she never sees the unpleasant shadows in the corner.

The cancer patient, Kate, is played by relative newcomer, Sofia Vassilieva (TV’s Medium). She’s beautiful, courageous, and saintly, much of the time–and just like any teenager she’s self-pitying, snotty, selfish and insecure. It’s an unforgettable performance, one of the most believable, well-rounded teenager characters I’ve ever seen. Vassilieva should be getting raves and Oscar buzz. What helps bring about such a performance, and the thing that many people forget, is that it took good writing to create scenes for this young actress to bring to life.

Kate falls in love with a fellow cancer patient, Taylor Ambrose, played with excruciating sensitivity by Thomas Dekker (TV’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). In the novel the romance is a minor subplot, playing second fiddle to the courtroom drama. The movie gives the romance center stage and in so doing allows Kate’s character to take the audience to the heights of young love and slam us back to earth with reality. It’s absolutely exquisite.

Another centerpiece of the movie, in keeping with a movie’s role as visual storyteller, is a memory album that Kate makes for her mother. In essence it’s a visual synopsis of her short life. The emotional impact of the album lingers long after the movie is over. Seeing how Kate has joyously documented her short time on earth can help you be grateful, or regretful, for how well you’ve documented your own life.

Rounding out the main female characters is another bit of risky casting. In the novel, the judge hearing the case was a man who had recently lost his own daughter to a drunken driver. The movie makes Judge de Salvo a woman, played by Joan Cusack (Confessions of a Shopaholic). Once you get past the distraction of Cusack’s wearisome facial contortions, you can see she is turning in a quirky, gutsy performance. While still grieving the death of her own child, the judge has to make a decision from the bench that may send another child to her death. It’s heart-wrenching.

The men, though solid performers all, play noticeably secondary roles in the movie. Whether this was intentional or the result of having to shorten the film for time, I can’t tell, but the result is clear–it’s a woman-heavy story. No complaints from me on that, but it is different from the novel.

Loving father, Brian, who is also a firefighter, is played with quiet dignity by Jason Patric (In the Valley of Elah). “Having a child who is sick is a full-time occupation” he says, summing up the history of his family. In the novel, teenage brother Jesse (Evan Ellingsen, TV’s CSI Miami). enjoyed a fascinating subplot as a troubled budding arsonist, but in the movie he’s just lost in the shuffle.

Attorney Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin, TV’s 30 Rock) handles Anna’s case for a pittance of $700, essentially making it pro bono. Why he does so, and what is the true role of his service dog, was a solid and intriguing thread in the novel that is short-changed in the movie.

In sum, My Sister’s Keeper the movie made substantial changes from the novel–some worked, some didn’t. But even if you don’t know the novel, the movie works. Rarely has the ugly side of cancer been revealed on screen with such brutal tenderness. And rarely have the strengths and weaknesses of caring family members been portrayed with such impact. In addition to its emotional beauty, My Sister’s Keeper, photographed by the brilliant Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, National Treasure) is also visually stunning.

Is it a sad movie? Yes. It’s also hilarious, thoughtful, and happy. Go see it.

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