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Non-Review Review: My Sister’s Keeper

Dying kids are a story device that should always be considered very carefully before you use them as a storytelling device. On one level it’s because it’s a very tough blow to deal the audience, but – on a more sophisticated level – because it can horribly misfire and seem like blatant emotional manipulation. Which, in fairness, all movie-making is – but you don’t want the audience cottoning on to that fact or you’re ruined. The illusion is shattered. Unfortunately My Sister’s Keeper isn’t smart enough to be aware of either of these risks in framing a story around a dying child suffering from cancer, so it smashes through both ideas like two large window panes before staggering blindly through the china shop of the tangental moral issues it raises. And yes, even those awkward and ham-fisted analogies I just fed you are more subtle than the movie itself.

Cameron Diaz really wants the part of Blofeld in Bond 23...

In fairness, a great deal of the problems with the movie might be concealled if the cast and the writing were any good. Instead we get a cast half divided between those who can’t act and those who simply won’t. I don’t think any actress could have done much with the material, but Cameron Diaz is clearly out of her depth as a mother struggling to keep her family together. Unfortunately Diaz can’t make the character sympathetic enough to engage with the audience, which is hard to believe given she’s the mother of a dying child. Abigail Breslin is a solid young actress, but the material simply isn’t here. Alec Baldwin isn’t even trying (he’s in “unfunny Jack Donaghue” mode) and Joan Cusack seems to decide to take a new approach to her post-nervous-breakdown judge in every scene. Jason Patric was never much of a dramatic actor, but he is – as with most – stuck in an underwritten role anyway.

This is coupled with an incredibly irritating back-and-forth monologue which leads to various characters making banal comments before banal music plays in the background. Show, don’t tell. Voice over is a volatile tool at any time, but here it is used to distraction. That said, a distraction from the main plot and the shallow characters would be grand, if it wasn’t so mind-numbingly irritating.

And these are problems on top of the movie’s underlying flaws. Some of these are structural – let’s cram a dead boyfriend into a tangental half-hour sequence! – some of these are logical – how is doctor “off the record” still practicing? – and some of these are even more basic. In its defense, the movie skirts certain important issues. The problem is exactly how it deals with these issues.

The younger donor sibling – Anna – is presented as having an issue with being treated solely as an organ bank for her sick elderly sibling. She seeks to get herself emancipated from her parents (medically at least). This is an interesting and complex issue – there are two sides to the story, there aren’t any easy answers. however, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the movie seems to dismiss this as far too complex an issue to handle. First it sidetracks the storyline for long and meandering flashbacks, but then it undermines the issue with a shock revelation that the older, sick sibling is the one behind her younger sister’s rebellion.

This move implies that Anna’s pursuit of autonomy over her own body isn’t valid unless her older sister condones it. On a much more superficial level, it serves as an obviously manipulative attempt to prove Anna is right by attaching a dying child to her cause. This completely undermines a clever and insightful debate that the movie seemed to be hoping to embrace. It dodges the tough questions that such a debate requires through slight of hand, but it also simply acts as though Anna doesn’t have a leg to stand on (which she clearly does, no matter which way you cut it) until her dying sister wants it to be so.

And on top of that, the soundtrack is terrible. Just bland, and mind-numbing.

All in all, it might not be as butt-numbingly terrible as Love Happens, but it feels significantly worse. The attempt to stick a “happy and uplifting” ending on the back of it (the father even ends up working with troubled youths… aw!) feels distinctly uncomfortable, because most of the audience will release from experience that good times don’t necessarily follow loss – certainly not in the sheer scale and quantity that they do here. It seems an almost tasteless “… and they all lived happily ever after” stuck on the end of the movie. After loss, life does go on, but it doesn’t necessarily instantly become brighter.

Maybe loss should be deemed one of those topics that mainstream Hollywood should stay away from. Leave it to the quirky independent film makers and their fresh ideas rather than simply structuring a movie around a cliché so trite it deserves to be on a Hallmark card.

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