Connoisseurs of agony in the cinema routinely torment themselves with the thought that they will never see Jerry Lewis's legendary "lost" film The Day the Clown Cried, the controversial second world war drama starring Lewis as a rascally clown who is sent to a Nazi concentration camp, but finds personal redemption there, doing gurning pratfalls to sweeten the poor children's final moments. Lewis withdrew the still incomplete film at the last moment and refuses to show it.
Instead, we will all have to make do with Nick Cassavetes's child-cancer-courage weepie My Sister's Keeper, based on the heart-tugging bestseller by Jodi Picoult, a book for which no complimentary bar of Galaxy chocolate will ever be big enough. Cameron Diaz stars as the life-affirmingly brave mom, whose teen daughter Kate has leukaemia, and whose younger daughter Anna, played by super-moppet Abigail Breslin, is now in existential revolt against the realisation that she was brought into the world specifically to be a donor for her sister.
With a fistful of savings, she has feistily engaged a roguish heart-of-gold lawyer, played by Alec Baldwin, to free herself of any more painful and possibly futile operations. Cameron has incidentally given up her own job as a hotshot lawyer to look after her sick child, but their hunky firefighter dad, played by stubbly Jason Patric, is evidently pulling down enough bucks to keep them all in a gorgeously spiffy house.
For those of you keen to undergo a 109-minute soft-focus Calvary of empathy, aspirational lifestyle choices and upscale family values with a tastefully rendered terminal illness, this is a total must. Some films have certificates like U or PG; this one should be OMG with a row of teardrops and frowny-face emoticons.
I say soft focus, incidentally, but this might not be a directorial decision. The camera lens could spontaneously have formed a welling layer of tears. Because miracles do happen. In one scene, goaded by her chemo-afflicted daughter's miserable avowals that she looks ugly with no hair, Cameron Diaz bounces defiantly into the bathroom and shaves off her own blonde crowning glory, and there's a montage showing the entire family, bald mom and all, showing some joyous solidarity on a day out to the funfair. But in the next scene, Cameron's hair has entirely grown back. There's no nonsense about one scene showing it stubbly, then another showing it short. It just grows back exactly as it was. For heaven's sake, Mr Cassavetes: show us where Cameron's hair-related miracle took place, and we will build a shrine and lay on Ryanair flights.
The film is accessorised with some very lugubrious flashbacks to sketch in the family's backstory in all its complexity. Concerned grownups will ask Anna things like: "Did you and your sister ever fight?", and Anna will go into what looks like a stunned trance, evidently beginning to remember one such argument, while the camera does an ultra-slow zoom into her face, so slow you can go out for nachos, return to your seat, and the flashback still won't have started. The girls have a troubled brother, incidentally, called Jesse, and at one stage Kate's syrupy voiceover tells us: "While everyone was worried about my blood count, I didn't even notice that Jesse was dyslexic ... "
Maybe she just thought he was stupid. They do have short attention spans in that family; Kate gets a hottie cancer-patient boyfriend whose narrative purpose is to introduce her to some sensitive love-making - falling short of the act itself - after which his departure from this life is briskly forgotten about - no funeral scene, no nothing.
Of course, Anna's sensational legal battle would seem to indicate an extremely painful rift between her and her sister. Surely, no matter how much Kate sympathises with her hurt at being just a spare-organ breeder, this would cause real sibling friction? But no. The two girls seem to maintain a glassy-eyed seraphic adoration of each other. The ultimate reason for this is revealed in a twist which is also an outrageous cop-out, a get-out clause cancelling the high concept that suckered us into the story in the first place, and which was the only risky or interesting thing about it.
In any case, there could be another reason why Abigail Breslin is reluctant to be an organ donor: her bad acting may be intended to tip us off to the fact that she is a Terminator-style robot, an Emotionator. Dig too deep into the realistic-looking tissue, and you will find diodes and steel, and that wise head on young shoulders will turn into a Chucky-style mask of rage. As it is, this is a film that looks like a feature-length infomercial for some prescription medication which should, in a sane world, be taken off the market.
Much of the film pivots on the knife-edge fulcrum of an exceedingly thorny ethical question: whether Sara has the right to compel Anna to donate a kidney to save Kate. Both characters express some sound reasoning for their respective points of view. For Sara, nothing matters more than keeping Kate alive. For Anna, however, the reality is that Kate's needs will never cease. And no matter what Anna provides for her sick sister, Kate is likely to die anyway.
Ultimately, though, the film isn't really about Anna's ethics or her mother's. Instead, Anna's refusal to surrender a kidney symbolizes the process of relinquishment. Anna understands before her mother does that Kate is going to die. For Sara, however, not pursuing every possible avenue for Kate's healing is tantamount to giving up. Even as Mom defiantly refuses to accept her daughter's impending death, Anna and the rest of the family have begun to come to terms with the idea of life without their beloved Kate.
Though she suffers from periodic depression because of her trials, Kate is generally upbeat. She faces cancer with courage, working through her grief more effectively than her mom, who is stubbornly stuck in denial. Kate also recognizes how great the emotional expense of her illness has been for her family. She laments the fact that she has inadvertently consumed most of her parents' attention and caused them to be so distracted that Anna and older brother Jesse have fallen through the cracks in significant ways.
Despite these enormous tensions, though, the Fitzgeralds focus on keeping family life alive. They eat dinner together and joke around the table. They enjoy afternoons playing in their back yard. And, as a family, they celebrate Kate's life. Sara's sister, Aunt Kelly, lives with the Fitzgeralds as well and is another important link in Kate's caregiving chain.
Kate's ordeal strains her parents' marriage to the brink of divorce, but Sara and Brian work to overcome their differences and keep the clan together. When Kate goes through chemotherapy, Sara makes a bold statement of solidarity by shaving her head to resemble her daughter's baldness. Long-suffering Brian continually forgives his wife's emotional outbursts as she struggles to help their daughter. And despite her lawsuit, Anna would do virtually anything (else) for her sister.
Taylor, a young leukemia patient whom Kate meets in the hospital, becomes her boyfriend. He lovingly supports her as she goes through chemotherapy (holding a plastic tub for her as she vomits, for example). Sara says his presence is probably better than any medicine. Together, Kate and Taylor help each other look death in the eye with humor and grace.
Two other characters in the legal part of the drama, a lawyer named Campbell Alexander and the judge who hears the case, Joan De Salvo, exhibit compassion for the Fitzgerald family. Likewise, Kate's doctor is a kind, gracious and sensitive man.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, we learn that Anna's lawsuit wasn't really her idea. Instead, Kate put her up to it in an effort to force their mother to deal with reality. Just before her passing, Kate gives her mother a beautiful book she's worked on that artfully chronicles every chapter of her life.