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My Sister's Keeper Explores Life, Death and Moral Dilemma

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2009 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
<i>My Sister's Keeper</i> Explores Life, Death and Moral Dilemma

DVD Release Date:  November 17, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  June 26, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking)
Genre: Drama
Run Time:  109 min.
Director:  Nick Cassavetes
Actors:  Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Jason Patric, Sofia Vassilieva, Heather Wahlquist, Evan Ellingson, Alec Baldwin, Thomas Dekker

For the uninitiated:  If you're looking for a happy-go-lucky beach read, Jodi Picoult's novels are never the way to go. They're tearjerkers, but never in The Notebook sense.

Instead of focusing her creative energy on sweeping stories of long lost love à la Nicholas Sparks, Picoult crafts twisty tearjerkers that revolve around dysfunctional families. And her best work, like the 2004 bestseller My Sister's Keeper, also poses timely ethical questions that ultimately leave the reader with plenty of food for thought.

In the past, several of Picoult's novels have been adapted for the small screen, namely for slightly cheesy Lifetime movies, and the subject matter has generally had "made for TV" written all over it. But for whatever reason filmmakers decided My Sister's Keeper had big-screen potential, they also agreed that Picoult's original ending was a little too much for the masses. So in a move that's been widely—and passionately—debated online, the story's conclusion has been softened a little.

For those concerned about the integrity of the story, however, it's difficult for a casual Picoult fan like myself to decide if the new ending really makes that dramatic of a difference, considering how truly sad the story is in the first place. Really, there are no happy endings when a child has cancer in the advanced stages, and My Sister's Keeper doesn't hold back on how awful and debilitating the disease really is. In addition to capturing the dramatic physical changes that inevitably come as the cancer spreads and the retching that results from chemotherapy sessions, it also shows the 24/7 level of dedication that's required to care for the afflicted—and how family members suffer in the wake of its all-consuming nature.

In a bit of casting I honestly never expected to work, Cameron Diaz trades in her typical ditzy blond shtick and throws herself into the decidedly unglamorous role of Sara Fitzgerald, an attorney who gives up her practice when her young daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva from TV's Medium) is diagnosed with leukemia. Determined to do whatever it takes to keep her daughter alive, she and her husband Brian (Jason Patric) don't have many options for treatment available. Well, until the doctor gives them a bit of controversial, off-the-record advice that could potentially make a significant difference—have another baby that's genetically engineered to perfectly match all of Kate's needs, whether it's for blood, bone marrow or even a kidney.

After the procedure was successful and Anna (Abigail Breslin) was born, the younger sister has served as the spare parts factory her older sister has needed along the way. Meanwhile, the girls' older brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) has almost been forgotten in all the drama. With Dad busy at work as a firefighter and all of Sara's attention focused on Kate, Jesse comes and goes as he pleases, hanging out in a seedy part of Hollywood to pass the time—all without his parents being the wiser. It's a complicated situation that provides for plenty of uneasy family dynamics that often culminate in Sara's voice getting even louder and more shrill as the moments tick by.

While the story itself is particularly bleak, there are a few nice cinematic touches that prevent My Sister's Keeper from being a total bummer. Warmly told from each character's point of view, a move that mirrors Picoult's own writing style, the audience has a better opportunity to connect with everyone involved. And in yet another memorable cameo, Alec Baldwin injects a much-needed shot of comic relief as an attorney for Anna who decides to seek "medical emancipation" from her family. Sick of serving as her sister's keeper, Anna wants the right to use (or not use) her body however she wants, a move that sends the already stressed-out family into an uncomfortable courtroom scenario.

Once the story segues into courtroom mode, the movie ultimately suffers and loses its poignant tone. With nothing much in the way of legal precedent for this unusual case, and a big twist that eventually comes out of left field, the audience gets too jerked around to really ponder the case's legal ramifications. But no matter where you land on the issue, one thing about watching My Sister's Keeper really stuck with me. Sure, the time-honored truth about the frailty of life certainly springs to mind. More than that, however, is a renewed sense of thankfulness for my faith as an anchor in life's most challenging moments. Through the biggest fight of their lives, all this fictional family has is one another, which is an amazing foundation that many people aren't quite so fortunate to have. But without hope of an afterlife spent with Jesus in heaven, struggling through a family member's terminal illness just becomes that much more hopeless without knowing the true Hope.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Kate is a on a steady stream of pain meds for her cancer, and in a moment of anger after the unexpected death of her boyfriend, Kate rebels by binge-drinking and trying to OD on pills.
  • Language/Profanity:  A moderate amount of profanity, including instances where the Lord's name is taken in vain. On one occasion, the "f" word is used.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Discussion of sex and conception. Kate and Taylor  (Thomas Dekker) make out and later, fool around in a hospital bed after a dance. Kate tells her Mom "they did it," but Kate clarifies that they "didn't do IT."
  • Violence:  No violence, but there are plenty of family verbal sparring, particularly by Sara who is fiercely protective of Kate.
  • Religion:  Kate and Sara debate what happens after death, and the afterlife is briefly addressed. But really, the film's take is that death is just death—it's natural and happens to everyone. There is no mention of spirituality or hope that's rooted in anything more than simply believing the best. Faith healers are also discussed, but not in a religious context. It's more of a "mind over matter" approach to getting healed that's addressed. 
     

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.