My Sister's Keeper
Adapted from Jodi Picoult's 2004 novel, My Sister's Keeper is the story of the Fitzpatricks, a family defined and consumed by the leukemia that has plagued teenager Kate since the age of two. Sara, Kate's mom, has devoted her life to saving her child, giving up her career as a lawyer early on in the process. Brian, Kate's firefighter dad, is a strong and loving presence, despite the fact that he is often rendered speechless by his own emotion and the force of his wife's fierce determination. Evan, Kate's older brother, is lost and aimless, often overlooked in the ongoing crisis management that demands his family's focus. And Anna, Kate's younger sister, is an 11-year-old kid resigned to needles and operations and the knowledge that she was deliberately engineered to be an ideal donor match for her sick sibling.
In the opening scenes of the movie, we learn that Kate's cancer has once again roared back out of remission, and that, worse, her kidneys are failing in the aftermath of thousands of treatments. We also discover that Anna is expected to donate one of her own perfectly compatible kidneys, and that she has secretly retained the services of an attorney to fight for "medical emancipation"—the right make decisions about her own body. The stage is set for drama of the courtroom, medical and familial variety, and My Sister's Keeper delivers it all relentlessly. Will Anna give in? Will Kate die? Will Sara's myopic (and completely understandable) fight to save one child destroy another one (or two) in the process? Will anyone notice Jesse isn't doing very well? Will Sara and Brian's marriage finally crumble under the terrible burden of their circumstances?
Some people are afraid of spiders, some of heights, but every person who has a child is afraid of the word "cancer." Director Nick Cassavetes (who showed his willingness to assault tear ducts with The Notebook) exploits this primal, universal fear shamelessly, showing us heartbreaking details of Kate's diagnosis and illness in a series of no-holds-barred flashbacks. It's all crushingly sad, and—thanks to uniformly effective acting—moving. Audiences will care desperately about Kate's physical and Anna's emotional survival. But simultaneously, they may find themselves suspicious of the film itself and annoyed by its blatant manipulations.
The problem lies chiefly in the transition from novel to screenplay. Cassavetes and co-writer Jeremy Leven do their best to retain the multi-character perspective that makes the book so well rounded, but something gets lost in adaptation. The decision to have each of the main characters provide voiceovers burdens the film with a talky, exposition-heavy clunkiness, and frequent dissolves, narration and montages (particularly in the first third of the movie) create an unwanted aura of artificiality. Further contributing to the sense of contrivance are the "happy" scenes scattered throughout, like the extended back-yard bubble-blowing sequence in which everyone laughs in slow motion while a poignant pop song plays. I imagine that in the face of imminent death, the highs would be intensified just as much as the lows, but the Fitzgeralds' spurts of family bliss in the midst of a tense court battle stretch the limits of credibility.