MY SISTER'S KEEPER (Nick Cassavetes, 2009)
In MY SISTER'S KEEPER eleven-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) will do and has done just about anything for her leukemia-afflicted teenage sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Their parents Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) conceived Anna with the plan that she would donate what Kate needed, be it umbilical cord blood or bone marrow, in the fight against cancer.
For all of her young life Anna has provided what Kate requires, although how much of a willing participant she's been is up for debate. As Kate takes a turn for the worse, the time comes for Anna to donate a kidney to keep her sibling alive. Within the family it's accepted--and expected--that Anna will again give part of herself to assist her older sister. Needless to say, Sara and Brian are shocked when their little girl sues them for medical emancipation.
Anna hires lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to help her win the right to make decisions about her own body. Prior medical procedures to benefit Kate have had complications and required hospital stays for Anna. A kidney donation would mean lifelong limitations on what activities she can participate in. It also doesn't guarantee Kate will be cured. Anna loves Kate and doesn't want her to die, but the coercive pressure her parents, especially her mother, have put on her has reached a breaking point.
Initially MY SISTER'S KEEPER looks to be a hot button drama about the ethics of donor children, but that sensitive subject is merely the hook for getting into a story about how a family can be torn apart when one member has a terminal illness. The nonlinear storytelling divides the narration among the Fitzgeralds, which allows the film to get a broader understanding of the choices that have led to this crisis and how each person has been affected. Not all of the characters are done justice--Brian and son Jesse (Evan Ellingson) mostly serve to push the action along--but the technique fills in gaps that would exist if it were told from a single perspective.
Based on Jodi Picoult's novel, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is an unrepentant tearjerker, and writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-writer Jeremy Leven build a solid, albeit exposed infrastructure for facilitating the waterworks. (The screening I attended featured the most audience sniffling and sobbing I think I've ever heard at the movies.)
Sara's apparent inability to consider Anna's well-being and individuality might be interpreted as monstrous behavior--sometimes she loses sight that her youngest child is more than spare parts--although her backstory and Diaz's credible performance make such reactions seem like the natural fallout from years of ferocious caregiving. Sara has so much energy and love invested in Kate that she is blinded to what's happening around her and doesn't know when to let go. Sara may be difficult to like, but Diaz imparts her with conviction and thus makes the character's reasoning seem rational to her.
MY SISTER'S KEEPER might have earned its weepy moments if it had played fair with its central dilemma rather than putting forward a false choice. The film conveniently dodges the question of whether it is moral to have a child for the express purpose of catering to a sibling's medical needs. While MY SISTER'S KEEPER may be primarily concerned with family dynamics during stressful times, the ethical question it raises looms too large for a loophole to render it unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
If the controversial issue wasn't going to be addressed, it didn't need to be introduced. The basis for an emotionally powerful and messy film about love and loss is plainly evident, but the unresolved gimmick distracts from where attention should be directed.