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Non-Review Review: Miss You Already

It is very difficult to produce a film about cancer that does not seem cloying or cynical. As a narrative device, cancer can often feel like a conscious attempt to manipulate the audience’s sentiment. It is an illness which means a lot to a lot of people, and which prompts a whole host of strong feelings among those who have lived with it and those who have known those close to them who lived with it. It is very difficult to properly calibrate a film about cancer so that it doesn’t feel like a short cut to audience empathy and sympathy.

Miss You Already walks a very fine line. It trips across that line on more than a few occasions, tripping over into the stock clichés of the “life-affirming cancer film.” There are emotional montages that capture and contrast the reality of life with and without cancer; there are familiar pop songs laid over sequences of characters coping with tremendous personal stress; there is the concious self-aware manipulation of footage in such a way as to visually underscore the passage of precious time or the pace of life.

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There are some storytelling decisions that do feel a little too clever and a little too shrewd, a very obvious attempt to provide optimistic symmetry to the mortality that nestles at the heart of the film. Miss You Already feels almost too conscious of itself at certain points, too aware of the audience to which it plays. The film works best when it ignores the familiar structuring, when it avoids trying to offset the morbid material with something a little lighter. Although occasionally smothered by familiar story beats, there are moments of humanity here.

It is to the credit of the two lead performers that those moments of humanity still shine through. Drew Barrymore is charming and charismatic in the role of narrator and witness, but the film belongs to Toni Collette. Collette anchors the film, proving a weight and emotional centre that is occasionally obscured by its recognisable structure. Miss You Already doesn’t quite work, but Collette’s performance gets it a lot closer than it might otherwise.

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There is something uncomfortable in the story structure of Miss You Already. In many ways, the plot adheres to the conventional relationship drama template. There is a happy relationship, a complication, an attempt to cope; things seem to stabilise, even teasing the possibility of hope from this situation; inevitably, there is a third act crisis as the main characters are separated by circumstances and the stable situation is proven to be nothing but an illusion. The basic pattern of Miss You Already might easily be applied to a rom-com, albeit with a less morbid theme.

Death and terminal illness do not necessarily work like that. They do not follow a logical or predictable arc; as such, the consequences of a terminal illness do not easily conform to the three-act structure. The ending might be set in stone, as all endings ultimately are, but it cannot be scheduled or mapped out. There is a chaos and randomness that comes with a diagnosis like that; there are good days and there are bad days. Sometimes the patient gets all the time that they were promised; sometimes they do not.

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There is a sense that the familiar structure of Miss You Already serves as a way to impose order on a terrifying and upsetting concept. Early in the film, Milli tries to explain cancer and chemotherapy to her young children through a DVD presentation; it is a way to make sense of something that can be difficult to process. In a way, Miss You Already and other films within the genre do something similar. They attempt to force a clear trajectory upon a reality that is terrifying precisely because it is so unpredictable.

All of this makes the trauma easier to process, but it also draws attention to the artificiality of the premise. As with biopics, the effort to impose a clean three-act structure upon the messiness of life can feel reductive or simplistic. As the plot of Miss You Already moves along, the cast occasionally feel less like characters and more like functions. They exist to service the narrative more than the narrative exists to service them. It renders what should be a very personal tragedy as something almost mechanical.

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That said, the movie manages moments of candid honesty. There are points where the film does explore the mundane and intimate difficulties of living with a cancer diagnosis. Milli finds herself effectively naked in from of her friends and family as her hair falls out and her scarred tissue shows. These smaller and quieter moments stand out in the film amid the montages or the pop songs; there is a sense of the uncertainty that comes with the illness, the way that the diagnosis undermines and threatens so much of what a patient takes for granted about themselves.

Collette does great work, and is ably supported by Barrymore. Even as the plot ticks around her like clockwork, Collette digs deep and finds a reservoir of humanity at the heart of the story. There are moments when the script feels like it is going through the motions, but Collette’s performance provides a clear throughline. She holds almost every scene in which she appears, helping Mille to seem like more than just a collection of quirks or details. Collette takes a script that can occasionally feel routine and elevate it.

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Collette’s performance provides the film with a sturdy foundation, but the movie never quite builds upon it. For all that Collette provides an incredible vulnerability, the film seems to shy away from that. There is a very conscious effort to offset the more harrowing realities at the heart of the story, as if worried the audience might feel too sad or too morbid. In particular, the film tries to compensate for Milli’s cancer diagnosis by grafting in a pregnancy subplot; the clear juxtaposition between life and death feeling forced rather than inspired.

Miss You Already is solid, but perhaps too solid. There is a wonderful rawness to Collette’s performance that is somewhat undercut by the meticulousness of the film around it.

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