Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Brian (Jason Patric) live an idyllic life with their young son and daughter. But their family is rocked by sudden, heartbreaking news that forces them to make a difficult and unorthodox choice in order to save their baby girl's life.
The parents' desperate decision raises both ethical and moral questions and rips away at the foundation of their relationship. Their actions ultimately set off a court case that threatens to tear the family apart, while revealing surprising truths that challenge everyone's perceptions of love and loyalty and give new meaning to the definition of healing.
Remember those awful disease-of-the-week TV movies that flooded the network airwaves back in the '70s and '80s? From cancer to VD, they covered every ailment imaginable, and featured more than enough medical hand-wringing, smiling-through-tears bravery, noble sacrifice, and second-rate actresses brazenly courting Emmy awards to satisfy an army of emotional junkies. 'My Sister's Keeper' harkens back to those schmaltzy, manipulative weepies, but director and co-screenwriter Nick Cassavetes ('The Notebook') tries his best to dial down the sentiment and tell his sad but strangely uplifting tale in a straightforward manner. He doesn't always succeed, but the low-key approach goes a long way toward making this family-in-crisis drama less painful than most.
Based on the bestselling novel by Jodi Picoult, 'My Sister's Keeper' not only chronicles the efforts of one family to treat and cure a teenage daughter's leukemia, but also examines the emotional stress and strain such a dire illness inflicts on each member of the clan, and the various ways they deal – or don't deal – with it. It's a clever twist on an age-old formula, shifting the focus (somewhat) away from the chemotherapy treatments, intermittent hospital stays, and debilitating symptoms that distinguish the disease. The only trouble is the script doesn't go quite deep enough into each character's psyche to offer more than a pat glimmer of their angst.
Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) was genetically conceived by her parents as a "donor child," a human compendium of spare parts, to help combat the rare cancer ravaging the body of her older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Whenever Kate needs blood, bone marrow, or other therapeutic elixirs, it's Anna to the rescue, and whether she likes it or not, she's forced to undergo scary and often painful procedures to ensure her sibling lives another day. But when Kate needs a kidney to survive, Anna resists going under the knife and jeopardizing her own future to buy her suffering sister more time. Her mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), who's been consumed with fighting Kate's disease since before Anna was born, scoffs at her protests (and selfishness), and her dad, Brian (Jason Patric), who's learned quiet support of his wife maintains at least the appearance of family harmony, only offers token sympathy. So Anna takes her case to a high-profile, opportunistic attorney (Alec Baldwin), who sues Anna's parents to protect her individual rights. Sara, of course, just happens to be a lawyer herself, and goes toe-to-toe with her daughter in the hope she can convince a judge (Joan Cusack) that Anna is too young to make such a difficult decision. The ensuing strife, however, only weakens the tenuous bonds holding the Fitzgerald family together, especially when Kate's condition worsens.
Most film adaptations can't rival the novels upon which they're based, but 'My Sister's Keeper' improves on the original by changing the book's controversial ending, which enraged many a reader. Cassavetes and co-writer Jeremy Leven tack on a more realistic and satisfying conclusion that keeps the inspirational message intact, but infuses it with more power and resonance. The movie's basic theme – that choosing to live or die is a personal, individual decision, no matter how old you are, and others need to butt out and respect that – is obvious, but not overstated, and avoids any cloying Lifetime or Hallmark Channel clichés. Interestingly, the picture's most touching and absorbing sequence veers away from the moral issues at hand as it depicts Kate's fledgling romance with a fellow cancer patient. Here, Cassavetes strikes just the right tone, bringing everything that was right about 'The Notebook' to this sensitive, moving vignette.
A few rough patches threaten to lampoon the story, but the largely natural performances go a long way toward righting the ship. Scenery chewing is often a fatal and unavoidable trap in such films, but Cassavetes keeps his actors under control. Vassilieva earns the most laurels with a luminous, wholly involving portrayal of the cancer-stricken daughter that tugs at our heart strings but never beats us over the head with unnecessary histrionics. Breslin is maturing into a fine adolescent with good instincts and none of the cutie-pie mugging to which girls of her age often resort to gain attention, and Patric, Baldwin, and especially Cusack also assert themselves well, despite roles that aren't fully fleshed out.
Unfortunately, the main problem is Diaz. Casting the perky blonde star as the abrasive mother whose relentless campaign to prolong her daughter's life alienates those around her (and whose motives often seem selfish) was a brave and offbeat choice, and while it's a nice change-of-pace role, the actress who's built a career on likeability often seems reticent to fully embrace her character's rougher elements. Her tone should be on a par with Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway in 'Terms of Endearment' – a woman who's shameless in her advocacy and willing to chew out anyone who stands in her path – and though Diaz often talks the talk, she rarely walks the walk, and the disconnect softens the edgier elements of her character.
Without question, 'My Sister's Keeper' is one of the better movies of this type, and save for a few accidental dips, Cassavetes makes sure this inspirational downer keeps its head above the murky waters of mawkish sentiment. His valiant efforts, however, only go so far. In the end, it's still all a bit hokey, but then again, how many disease dramas aren't?
'My Sister's Keeper' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a well-balanced, speck-free transfer that's pleasant enough to watch, but lacks the vibrancy and dimensionality of flashier high-def titles. The 1080p/VC-1 encode possesses a modicum of grain that gives the picture a warm film-like feel, but details are never obscured and remain nicely defined in both the foreground and background. Contrast is properly pitched, colors are true and not overly saturated, and black levels flaunt plenty of depth and richness. Still, a prevailing flatness keeps the image from truly coming alive. Close-ups are crisp, but only occasionally exude a sense of immediacy.
Digital processing, however, is kept to a minimum, and no banding or noise creeps into the picture. A bit of edge enhancement could be detected, but it never distracts from the drama. All in all, this transfer makes the grade, but doesn't stimulate the senses like it should.
Though the sedate, talky nature of 'My Sister's Keeper' limits audio expectations, the disc's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track rarely sparkles, and most of the time remains almost as weak as the film's central character. Clarity isn't the issue; dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and the front-based mix enjoys good dynamic range and balances effects and ambience nicely. There's just not much noticeable stereo separation, panning, or surround action to add atmosphere and aural interest to the proceedings. The sound remains on a frustratingly even keel throughout, missing opportunities to open up the audio field on the rare occasions when the drama moves outdoors. Accents, however, are crisp and well rendered, and nothing disrupts the serene quiet of many delicate scenes. Bass frequencies barely can be detected, but that's not a surprise for this type of film, and Aaron Zigman's music score subtly enhances the drama.
This is a serviceable track that does what it needs to and respects the movie's tone, but a little more presence would have enhanced the story's impact.
Surprisingly slim offerings for a movie of this type. No audio commentary, no trailers, and the only featurette is a Blu-ray exclusive (see below)…
With its varied perspective and straightforward presentation, 'My Sister's Keeper' may be a cut above the typical disease-of-the-week drama, but Nick Cassavetes' film remains mired in an unforgiving genre and isn't strong enough to break out. Decent video and audio and a couple of standard supplements aren't enough to cure its malaise, but those who enjoy a good cry, dissecting family dynamics, and watching good actors strut their stuff will find this poignant drama worth a look.