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It can be really difficult to identify that fine line in every film that separates earned emotion from simple manipulation. By it’s very nature, My Sister’s Keeper is designed as a tear-jerker. The premise alone is designed to provoke a reaction, and while director/co-writer Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) successfully mines the material for all that it’s worth, I’m not entirely sure the film itself deserves the emotions that it is going for.
The setup is relatively intriguing. Kate Fitzgerald is dying of leukemia, so her parents have another child, genetically manipulated to be a perfect match for Kate. But what happens when this daughter, Anna, sues for medical emancipation, and in essence decides to let her sister die? And what exactly is Anna’s motivation? This is powerful material, and as the film got underway I found myself genuinely interested in the legal aspects of the case, and the way that the characters would undoubtedly unravel in this situation.
Unfortunately, Cassavetes lets the film run away from him, and tangles up what could have been a fascinating, albeit straightforward, narrative with clumsy flashbacks of the family and their struggles to deal with the cancer itself. I can appreciate his attempts to flesh out the dynamics of the family, and to give us the conflicting points of view, but this is where I felt the manipulation coming in. At any given moment, everybody is happy, then sad, then angry, etc. It all seems predetermined to the point of distraction, designed for maximum emotional reaction.
That being said, every single actor in this film shines. Cameron Diaz gives a career-best performance as the mother forced to deal with not only a dying daughter, but also a daughter that she feels is betraying her family. I’ve always admired Diaz, but I’ve never been this impressed with her. You can feel her character’s desperation as she struggles to retain control of her situation. Also impressive is Jason Patric, in a fantastically subtle performance as the father. And I can’t say enough good things about the performances from Abigail Breslin as Anna, and Sofia Vassilieva as Kate. Their characters go through so much in this film that it’s unbelievable when you realize these actors are just kids. I completely bought their performances; they made these characters real. Other standouts include Alec Baldwin as Anna’s attorney, and a fantastic performance from Joan Cusack as the judge dealing with the loss of her own daughter.
Cassavetes may have let the story run away from him, but he has a great eye for visuals. He knows how to frame and light a scene to visually convey the emotions he wants us to feel. Some of this work is very subtle, especially in regards to the background lighting. There are moments when you don’t even realize what he is doing, but when you pull yourself back and actually look at the scene, there is a lot of fantastic imagery occurring.
The newly released Blu-Ray is, as expected, the best way to view these images. While this isn’t the type of movie that needs to be seen with the best picture and sound, the disc still looks and sounds great. However, there aren’t a lot of extras in this set. This isn’t really the type of film that would need a lot of bonus features, so I didn’t really feel shortchanged with the limited material. There are over 15 minutes of deleted scenes, but beyond that, the only extra is a featurette on Jodi Picoult, the author of the book on which the film is based. It’s moderately interesting to see the author discuss her process and what it took to get her material adapted for the screen, but overall it’s a short little piece that isn’t really necessary viewing.
There was a lot of potential in this story. Everytime the story got away from the lawsuit, I found myself waiting for them to go back there. While the flashbacks do provide insight into these characters, I found most of these sequences excessive, and detracting from the actual focus of the film. I really did find myself drawn into the story and these characters. I just wish Cassavetes let us form our own emotions, and that he didn’t feel the need to essentially instruct the audience as to what to feel, and when to feel it. This is almost a great movie, but by not letting us feel for ourselves, it just misses the mark.