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My Sister’s Keeper (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 9, 2023


Starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason Patric, Alec Baldwin, Evan Ellingson, Joan Cusack, Heather Wahlquist, Thomas Dekker, David Thornton, E.G. Daily and Emily Deschanel.

Screenplay by Jeremy Leven and Nick Cassavetes.

Directed by Nick Cassavetes.

Distributed by New Line Cinema. 109 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Though I do appreciate a well-crafted weepy film, I have a very low tolerance for sap. It can be a subtle distinction; however, you know it when you see it.

My Sister’s Keeper is hardwired to make you bawl. The situation, the characters, the screenplay, the music, the acting – every possible button is pushed to ensure the maximum in pathos.

Eventually, when a movie is expending all that energy to make you cry, there are two possible reactions.

Some people will give in to the emotions being served up and get floated off in a wave of tears. I know my sister just saw the coming attractions trailer to the film and was a crying mess – swearing to never watch the whole film because it would just destroy her.

Others – like me – will get a little annoyed by the overt, somewhat cynical emotional manipulation heaped into the story. If they had to work this hard to ensure that I feel devastated, then it almost achieves the opposite effect. The constant attempts to pluck the heartstrings had the tendency to numb me to the genuine emotions buried beneath.

The sense of woe extends to the film’s soundtrack, where a series of normally upbeat songs are performed as slow, sad ballads. These include soft, broken versions of such songs as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” The Talking Heads’ “Heaven” and Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home.” Musically, they are adventurous – even if they are used in the film essentially as just more cues to start the melancholy.

My Sister’s Keeper does not need all this button pushing. It is about a fifteen-year-old girl dying of Leukemia. A story cannot get much more tragic than that. The movie didn’t need all the other melodramatic bells and whistles.

In fact, the dying girl Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is almost pushed aside to secondary importance here – at least as far as the film set-up and theme are concerned.

The movie really can't seem to figure out who or what it is all supposed to be about. The film is so disjointed that it actually has six different characters narrating the action at various points.

Eventually, the real hot button thorny story is that of Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Anna (Abigail Breslin) – the dying girl’s misguidedly determined (and borderline criminally negligent) mother and her eleven-year-old sister, who has essentially been bred as a personal donor for Kate.

With such an explosive idea, the film eventually sort of skirts the moral and ethical dimensions of this situation. At first it seems to want to take them on directly – Anna shows up at the door of an ambulance chasing lawyer (Alec Baldwin), asking him to win her the right to refuse to donate her organs.

This is a personal affront to Sara, who has made it her mission in life to save her sick daughter – even if it means ignoring her other two children. Luckily, Cameron Diaz is a likable enough actress to make this completely disagreeable character somewhat bearable.

Dad (Jason Patric) is no help – he is there to support everyone and yet he basically lets his wife walk all over him until he finally grows a little backbone near the very end. (You question his judgment right off the bat because he lives in Los Angeles and yet he is always wearing New York Yankees shirts and hats. He is obviously a man who has no courage of his convictions and just goes with the prevailing winds.)

Eventually, though, the legal and moral sides of the debate are shuffled aside for more traditional family pathos. In fact, the whole lawsuit storyline turns out to feel like a bit of a bait and switch.

The film looks beautiful and there is some fine acting on display. Vassilieva is the true revelation here. She is a young actress mostly known for television, she is Patricia Arquette’s older daughter on the series Medium and did a couple of TV movies based on the legendary children’s book character Eloise – but nothing prepared you for the bravery she shows in this somewhat thankless role. Whether Kate is going through chemo, experiencing puppy love with a hunky cancer patient, looking obsessively at a collage “life book” she is putting together or facing death, the young actress plays it fearlessly – even if her character is not allowed any real faults. Kate is a martyr to tear apart and rebuild her family.

Problem is the screenplay by Nick Cassavetes – who also made the similarly manipulative The Notebook and obviously has inherited none of his father John’s hard-edged realism – plucks at our heartstrings so relentlessly that the pathos eventually loses any real power.

In fact, a lot of it just turns maudlin – i.e., a dying Kate giving her mother her life book, which includes a smiling pop-up picture of Kate with “I love you” written over her head. You have to work a hell of a lot harder than that if you want to get me to weep.

Interestingly, there were two scenes in My Sister’s Keeper which did succeed in choking me up a little bit – though neither of them were the more obvious tear-jerking scenes which were specifically designed to slay the audience. The first one has Anna meeting with the judge hearing her case (Joan Cusack) – a judge who is still mourning the recent loss of her own daughter to a drunk driver – and the little girl impulsively realizes they are in similar situations and asks the judge how it feels to lose someone so close. In the second scene, Sara’s younger sister Kelly (Heather Walquist), who has been there unconditionally to help with the care of Kate, eventually tries supportively – but firmly – to get Sara to try to open her eyes to the more wide-reaching implications of her actions towards both Kate and Anna.

Okay, yes, I get that those scenes were somewhat manipulative, too. However, these were also rather subtle and recognizably human. If more of My Sister’s Keeper had shown this kind of intelligence and restraint, it would have been a much more effective and tragic picture.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: November 16, 2009.

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