Directed by Nick Cassavetes
We’re introduced to the Fitzgerald family via a narrative voice-over by 11-year-old Anna, played by Abigail Breslin, who explains how she was “genetically engineered” by her parents as a way to keep her older sister Kate alive. Tired of being treated like a lab rat, she goes to Alec Baldwin’s Campbell Alexander, a high-profile “TV lawyer” with an exemplary success record, to be medically emancipated from her parents.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in terms of how families deal with dying, and the idea of parents using one daughter’s organs and blood to keep another alive is an interesting and weighty subject that could spur a lot of discussion and debate. At one point, Kate’s father (Jason Patric) even muses about bad things happening to the family due to the way they treated their younger daughter as an organ donor, a throwaway line that should have been explored further rather than brushed under the carpet.
Instead, “My Sister’s Keeper” tries to be a slice-of-life film that often suffers from its own bad storytelling decisions, as it tries to fill itself with plot developments that have little to do with the issues surrounding Kate’s illness. In fact, the central premise of Anna suing her parents, done more memorably in Drew Barrymore’s “Irreconcilable Differences,” is nearly forgotten as the film starts playing around with flashbacks to the family’s dysfunctional past. As important as this is to establish the relationships and situations that got the family where we meet them, it’s essentially a lot of random moments chopped together with very little cohesion. This is worsened by the decision to introduce each character using a floating point-of-view, each character getting their own narrative moments, including Anna and Kate’s father and brother, both whom play less important roles in the story.
A lot of the problems come down to Cassavetes’ inconsistent direction, resulting in a dull talky movie that tries to break up random scenes of yelling and crying with cutesy montages of the family enjoying their time together driven by pop ditties. It makes for a tonally erratic film that never quite recovers. Things go straight downhill once the film shoehorns in some teen romance by having Kate meet a cute bald boy also going through chemotherapy for cancer. They start hanging out, even attending a pseudo-prom, creating a “Twilight” moment that’s completely out of place with the rest of the film.
This is also a clear case of something we like to call “two minute drama,” the type of lazy filmmaking where a hurdle or road block is placed in front of the characters to be resolved two minutes later and quickly forgotten. For instance, from out of the blue, it’s mentioned at one point that Kate and Anna’s brother is dyslexic. Why is that necessary? Who knows? But it starts the snowball rolling as the film starts piling on all sorts of topical issues from teen suicide and sex to drunk driving and even epilepsy, each touched upon in one two-minute scene. Adding so many twists does very little to the overall story while creating fairly blatant plot holes and inconsistencies. Kate is having issues with her appearances, so her mother shaves her own head to make her feel less ugly; oddly, we never see Diaz again with a shaved head after that, and in fact, her hair is quite long in later moments.
Diaz has been completely miscast in the role, because she’s entirely unconvincing as the mother of three, giving a terrible overblown performance that shows that she’s just not suited for drama. The motivations of her character rarely feel plausible, not that we ever really get a sense why she might love one daughter so much that she’d be willing to sacrifice the life of another. Breslin isn’t much better, bringing her overplayed smart and sassy persona to a character who really needs to win over the audience’s empathy but never does.
On the other hand, Sofia Vassilieva gives a breakthrough performance as Kate; watching her light up the screen is one of the few reasons to endure the rest of the movie. She clearly had a far more difficult role than either Diaz or Breslin, essentially playing a character we have to watch die in front of our eyes, and her ability to do so in a believable way stands out amidst all the WB-level melodrama. It leads to a great moment between her and Diaz, easily the strongest scene of the movie that almost makes the rest worth it. As much as Cassavetes constantly tries to pull the heartstrings and go for the biggest emotional splash possible, this scene is where he finally succeeds. It’s likely to get more than a few tear ducts working, although after so many unnecessary tangents, it does feel somewhat manipulative.
“My Sister’s Keeper” didn’t necessarily have to be played up as a “chick flick” because the subject of parents dealing with a dying child should be a universal theme that’s genderless. Where Diaz’s previous literary vehicle “In Her Shoes” could be appreciated by men, this one is just grueling as it goes further and further away from the main point. The lawsuit probably could have easily carried the film, especially since characters played by Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack as a judge who lost her own daughter in a drunk driving accident, are far more likable than most of Kate’s family as they offer much-needed lightness to what might have been a dreary and heavy-handed exercise otherwise.
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