My Sister’s Keeper

Posted on June 25, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking
Profanity: Brief strong language (one f-word, a few other curse words)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: A theme of the movie is cancer and there are characters who are very ill with explicit and graphic images of treatment and symptoms, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2009

How far would you go to save your child’s life? How far should you go? Those are the questions posed — and largely ducked — in this film based on the best-selling book, My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. The New York Times recently said that in Picoult’s books, which often focus on “terrible things” happening to children, “he assault on any individual family is typically mounted from angles multiple and unforeseen.”

The “terrible things” here are inspired by a real-life story. Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Brian (Jason Patric), learn that no one in their family matched their daughter well enough to be able to donate bone marrow or blood cells she needs for cancer treatment. So, they decided to have another baby, one specifically genetically tweaked to be able to provide her sister with healthy cells, starting with the blood from her umbilical cord. As she says, most children arrive by accident, but she was designed to be born for spare parts. At age 11, having spent her entire life being pricked and prodded and now being asked to give up a kidney, Anna (Abigail Breslin) hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue for “medical emancipation,” to get permission to stop.

Solomon had to choose between two mothers who both claimed the same baby and he was not related to any of them. But Sara and Brian must choose between their daughters, and they are so desperate to save the one who is sick that they cannot admit to themselves the damage they are doing to the one who is well. The ones who are well — there is also a son who is so overlooked that he sneaks back into the house after being out all night only to find that no one noticed.

Director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) wisely changed the jarring ending in the novel and is very effective in conveying the matter-of-fact mastery of the details of the symptoms and treatments, a touch of authenticity that is in sharp contrast to the one-dimensionality of the characters. He overdoes the pop songs on the soundtrack, though, with so many montages it feels like a music video punctuated with brief scenes of family anguish. But Picolt insists on allotting tragedy to every character as though she is dealing cards. And she undermines the power of the story and its themes with a syrupy overlay that distorts the issues so that the result is more gooey than dramatic. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel composes exquisite images. But they add to the sense the film does exactly what it says it does not do and ties everything up in a mode that is just too neat and convenient instead of engaging in a forthright and honest way with the issues and the characters. That just rings hollow and ultimately disrespectful to the conflicts it purports to portray.

Patric, who should be in more movies, is outstanding as Brian. The look in his eyes as he watches his daughter go on a special date is heart-wrenching. Diaz, in her first role as a mother, is fine in the quieter moments but never reaches the ferocity that is at the heart of the story. As the sick girl, Sofia Vassilieva is luminious and wise. But the best moments on screen come from Joan Cusack as the judge. Every tiny gesture and look is searingly authentic, a bracing dose of reality in the midst of the gooey saints all around her.

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12 Replies to “My Sister’s Keeper”

  1. I thought this film was a brilliant tribute to parents who love and care and would go to any extreme for their children. It is, at its heart, a very tender love story. While there is a subplot involving romantic love between teens, it is a family love story. Sure it is a tear jerker. It is meant to be.

  2. Thanks, Tim — I agree that it is a tear-jerker and there is nothing wrong with that. One of the purposes of art is to elicit and help us understand the full range of our feelings. And I think the portrayal of the entire family was very positive. Contrary to what they said in the movie, it was a highly functional family. The film’s greatest strength was its focus on what it means to “go to any extreme,” especially when extreme to benefit one child has a detrimental impact on the others.

  3. This movie was NOTHING like the book!! It was awful in comparison and if you LOVED the book…DON’T see the movie! The movie had good acting yet was not a well done adaptation of the book. The ending was COMPLETELY different than in the book! I (we) were very disappointed

  4. Having a daughter struggle with a serious illness for the past two+ years (and knowing remission will elude us for at least two more), I went to see “My Sister’s Keeper” to see how Hollywood would portray the intricate, multi-faceted emotions and family dynamics of terminal/serious illness.
    Few movies are made dealing with serious illnesses in children; rarely is it done well.
    Crisis in a family brings intensity and stress. It is that intensity that brings us much closer than we had ever been before. It is that stress that threatens to tear us apart.
    Most families dealing with a sick child are not like the one in “My Sister’s Keeper”. Their dysfunctionality is what drives the storyline. Many of us as parents strive to keep our families more balanced, to take into account the different needs of all our children, to teach them to make sacrifices for one another, and to keep some sense of continuity in the midst of our “new normal”.
    Personally, my favorite actor was Kate(Sophia Vassileva) who poignantly portrayed the myriad of emotions of not only dealing with a terminal illness but also the roller coaster of emotions of regular adolescence in the midst of it.
    I would hope that many people will go see this movie, even the squeamish, for a peek they might not otherwise get into families who struggle with terminal illnesses.

  5. Annie, my prayers are with your family, and I am glad to hear you found some comfort in this film. I agree with you that Sophia Vassileva was wonderfully authentic in the film and I hope the people who see this movie develop a better understanding of the way that serious illness affects the entire family. Your comment is a very important one and your family is truly blessed to have you.

  6. Just saw this film and agree that it skirts the difficult issue–the elephant in the room (or in this case-the screenplay) how is it o.k. to produce a child simply to be a donor for another? I’m a mom, I can understand the panic and need to do all you can to save a child you love and how difficult it is to stand by and watch someone suffer leukemia and all it involves. (a dear sister-in-law died of this, so I know how brutal the treatment can be.) The scenes in flashback of the parents holding a small child down so she can donate tissue, etc, for her sister were very hard to take for me. And the very thought of a DOCTOR suggesting they produce a donor child was just horrible! Getting hung up on that for a while really stopped the film for me for a bit. As to the performances: Patric–I agree, he was much more real and believable than Diaz. She is good, but I just felt she was always thinking of “when is it my turn to speak” instead of really reacting and being in the “skin” of her character. I think Meryl Streep is the bet example of an actor who can do this–always believable. The best performance by an adult: Cusack was just incredible! She alternately broke my heart and made me want to just be lucky enough to be my friend. So intelligent a performance!! Best overall performances: the 4 young people. All of them terrific–these older actors will have to watch their backs–these kids are gaining on them. Where has that young man who played Taylor been? He’s gorgeous even without hair!And those eyelashes! Hope to see much more of all of these young actors in films that are more fun and worthy of their talents.

  7. Mary, I agree with everything you said (as usual!), especially about Cusack and the kids. Thomas Dekker was Taylor and he was outstanding. Hope to see him in something else, soon! (With hair.)

  8. I noticed in your review that it was “wise” of the director to change the ending to the movie from what the ORGIGINAL book had. I am a great fan of Jodi Picoult and i HIGHLY disagree. Jodi Picoult made the book for the reason and made the ending so as to create controversy over what is right, and what is wrong. For the director to change the original ending is ludacris and should not have happend. Why do you think that it is right? If someone made a movie about some of your “articles” and changed what you said, would you be happy about it? Please, share your opinion. I’d love to see what you have to say.

  9. Thanks, Katilin! I do not like the end of the book and I think it would have been an even bigger problem if they had tried to keep it that way in the movie. Without giving too much away, I believe that the movie’s ending does a much better job of confronting the true moral dilemma here rather than interposing an arbitrary and highly manipulated plot twist that solves the characters’ problems for them.
    Jodi Picoult did not have to sell her book to the movies and did not have to agree to the change, but she did. So, presumably, she is happy about it.

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