The thorny ethical issue at the core of My Sister’s Keeper is the stuff of juicy late-night debates: What if a family had a sick child and essentially engineered another child to give that sick child bone marrow and blood? And what if that younger, healthy child got tired of being stuck with needles and hospitalized and decided to sue her parents for emancipation of her own body? Whose side would you be on?
In both Jodi Picoult’s novel and Nick Cassavetes’ film adaptation, you find yourself mostly sympathizing with young Anna (Abigail Breslin), partly because her mother (Cameron Diaz, unglammed and completely believable) has such crazy tunnel vision when it comes to her eldest daughter.
At the same time, the mother’s fierce protectiveness is touching: I have one sick child, Diaz’s Sara says at one point, so she is the child I simply must care about the most. Her other two children—there is also a son, played by a sad-eyed Evan Ellingson—are slightly neglected, but they are relatively well cared for. You can almost take Sara’s side.
The film, like the book, does a great job at showing the heartbreak of having a child with leukemia. I continue to be haunted by the flashback scene of 3-year-old Kate, lying half-naked on an examination table—skinny and vulnerable and so impossibly young—moments before her parents hear the dreaded news: leukemia. But to contrast that image, we get to see flashbacks of Anna, also a toddler, squirming and fighting against needles that draw blood and painful bone marrow.
All this stuff is great. And the acting is superb. Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as the slick lawyer who takes on Anna’s case—he may be self-promoting, but his interest in Anna feels genuine. As a teenager, Kate is played by Sofia Vassilieva, who is nothing short of remarkable. And Jason Patric goes against type, playing the sympathetic dad, who loves his wife but perhaps sees their other two children more clearly than she does.
Indeed, there is so much to like about My Sister’s Keeper, I wish I could report that I was giving it a rave review.
But I can’t. Nick Cassavetes, who also directed The Notebook, stacks the deck with impossible sentimentality—it’s borderline kitsch. Many of the scenes of the family are staged like grainy home movies—meant to evoke the maximum of nostalgia. If Cassavetes were making a statement about the facade of family photos and memories—how they often distort an unpleasant reality—now that would really be something. But he’s not. He’s simply using those images—the family having a barbecue, or laughing around the dinner table—to tug at our heartstrings, in the most facile of ways. (A scene where the sick Kate is taken to the beach is particularly gratuitous.)
One fault of the film lies with Picoult’s beloved source material, which ultimately cops out on the ethical debate with an ending that almost manages to undermine everything we’ve just seen.
A shame. If Cassavetes and Picoult had only trusted their story (and their audience) more, My Sister’s Keepermight’ve been something truly special.