In "My Sister's Keeper," director Nick Cassavates tackles new, provocative issues that beset many American families today. Based on Jodi Picoult's best-selling book of the same title, the film strains in its effort to present a more multi-nuanced portrait of family life, seen from different points of view.
Ultimately, the movie succumbs to levels of conventional narrative, literalness and sentimentality (recurrent problems in most Cassavetes' films, the good and the bad ones), which deviate from the book's more complex texture and varied tone.
That said, the movie is well acted, particularly by Cameron Diaz, in a major dramatic role. Moreover, it raises interesting medical, ethical, and social questions that are very much a product of our times, a result of the interface of medicine, biology, sociology and humanity. In doing so, "My Sister's Keeper" challenges the viewers' own perceptions of what is family love, the definition of loyalty, the limits of sacrifice, and the essence of responsibility, both to self and to others.
The movie begins (and ends) with voice-over narration by Anna (Abigail Breslin): "When I was a kid, my mother told me that I was a little piece of blue sky that came in to this world because she and Dad loved me so much. It was only later when I realized that it wasn't exactly true."
We learn that the life of Sara and Brian Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) with their young son and their two-year-old daughter Kate forever changed when they learned that Kate has rare form leukemia. After seeking help, the parents realize that their only hope is to conceive another child, specifically intended to save Kate's life.
We witness how Kate's health becomes the fulcrum of the family, which grows with the birth of her sister Anna. We are both mesmerized and terrified by the notion of Anna being more than just another welcome addition. Conceived as a perfect genetic match, Anna becomes a necessity.
For most people, genetic engineering raises moral and ethical questions, not to mention biological ones. But for the Fitzgeralds, particularly mother Sara, there it's not really a matter of choice; it's a duty and an obligation. Keeping Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) alive as long as possible becomes a sacred goal that calls for unprecedented love and sacrifice from all those around us, but especially Anna, who becomes the donor of all the organs needed by Kate.
Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Kate and Anna (Abigail Breslin) share a bond closer than most sisters. Though Kate is older, she relies on her little sister in every way, realizing that her very life depends on Anna.
In flashbacks, through the stories of the various members of the family, we get glimpses into their personal and public lives. The two sisters endure endless medical procedures and hospital stays, which become integrated into the routine existence a close-knit family, pretending to live a normal life.
A loving wife and devoted mother, Sara had left her career as an attorney to take care of her daughter, which is more than a full-time job. We feel sympathy for a woman who has become lost inside the single-minded caregiver, dedicated to one and only cause, prolonging Kate's life at all costs.
The feature's male roles are not as well-defined as those of the females. Even so, Brian comes across as a solid, supportive husband, who's getting accustomed to being rendered powerless and passive by his wife's determination, which at times borders with the obsessive, forcing Sara to make illogical demands on him and the other children.
There's a wonderful scene, in which Kate, toward the end of her life, wishes to spend the day on the beach, with her doctor's blessing but against her mother's wishes. The father obliges and arranges for a family picnic, while Sara throws a tantrum in public and threatens him with divorce. Hours later, Sara shows up at the beach and joins her family in a silent, powerful sequence that needs no words.
As for their only son Jesse (Evan Ellingson), he tends drifts, a result of being neglected and forgotten by his parents for whom Kate and Anna always come first, always occupying center stage.
Things change dramatically, when at age 11, after endless medical procedures (some of which causing mental and physical harm), Anna decides to stop being her sister's keeper and says no to donating yet another organ. Moreover, bright and alert, she determines to seek medical emancipation and hires her own lawyer (Alec Baldwin). Unfortunately, from that point on, once a court case begins, the movie takes turn to the worse and becomes a routine, TV-like courtroom melodrama.
Deviating completely from the book's ending, which is more factual and ironic, the last two scenes are too schmaltzy and fake in their insistence on a more upbeat and optimistic closure, almost negating most of the serious and realistic elements that precede it.
The acting of the entire ensemble is uniformly good, compensating for the shortcomings in the writing and directing departments.
Still better-known for her comedic roles ("There's Something About Mary," Charlie's Angels"), Cameron Diza turns in an intense, utterly compelling performance, immersing herself completely (wearing ordinary clothes and sans make-up) in the tough dramatic role of the matriarch, who holds onto her belief–"just so you all know. I'm never going to let her die. I'm not"–almost to the bitter end, at the risk of losing her husband and alienating her other children and her sister, who's there to support her. It's perplexing to me why this astonishingly likeable and beautiful actress doesn't work more often.
Of the children, though Abigail Breslin has the biggest role, the one who excels is Sofia Vassilieva, as the cancer patient Kate, giving a fearless performance that calls for shaving he head and eyebrows and meeting other physical and biological challenges. Mid-way, Kate meets a male patient at one of her chemo sessions and a tentative romance evolves between the two, with courtship, dating and dancing, alleviating for a while into a lighter and even lyrical sphere what's essentially an uncompromisingly grim and bleak melodrama.
Adding color and interest are the lawyer and the female judge, played by Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack, respectively, who have to deal with their own inflictions and problems. And it's nice to see a sensitive and sympathetic oncologist, who deals with each and every patient individually according to their specific needs
Sara Fitzgerald – Cameron Diaz
Anna Fitzgerald – Abigail Breslin
Campbell Alexander – Alec Baldwin
Brian Fitzgerald – Jason Patric
Kate Fitzgerald – Sofia Vassilieva
Aunt Kelly – Heather Wahlquist
Judge De Salvo – Joan Cusack
Taylor Ambrose – Thomas Dekker
Jesse Fitzgerald – Evan Ellingson
Dr. Chance – David Thornton
A Warner release of a New Line Cinema presentation of a Mark Johnson/Curmudgeon/Scott L. Goldman production.
Produced by Johnson, Chuck Pacheco, Goldman.
Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, MeridethCQ Finn, Mark Kaufman, Diana Pokorny, Stephen Furst, Mendel Tropper.
Co-producers, Hillary Sherman, Steven Posen.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes.
Screenplay, Jeremy Leven, Cassavetes, based on the novel by Jodi Picoult.
Camera, Caleb Deschanel.
Editors, Alan Heim, Jim Flynn.
Music, Aaron Zigman.
Production designer, John Hutman.
Set designer, John Warnke; set decorator, Maggie Martin.
Costume designer, Shay Cunliffe.
Sound, Steve Cantamessa; supervising sound editor, Kelly Cabral; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill.
Stunt coordinator, Eddie Braun.
Assistant director, Jonathan McGarry.
Casting, Matthew Barry, Nancy Green-Keyes.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 109 Minutes.