Andy Bockelman: 'My Sister's Keeper' keeps viewers' attention, thanks to cast

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

'My Sister's Keeper'

2.5 out of 4 stars

109 minutes

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Jason Patric

— In between the expected sci-fi and fantasy epics of summer, there has to be a pit stop in reality at the movies. Enter the tearjerker du jour "My Sister's Keeper."

Things are rough for the Fitzgerald family. Middle child Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) has had leukemia since age 2, and the disease has affected everyone in her family heavily. Lawyer mother Sara (Cameron Diaz) has had to go out of practice to take care of Kate, and firefighter dad Brian (Jason Patric) has as much stress in home life as he does on the job.

Kate's siblings, Jesse (Evan Ellingson) and Anna (Abigail Breslin), have had to deal with being constantly shunted to the side, but it has been even worse for Anna - the youngest Fitzgerald was conceived purposefully through in vitro fertilization to provide her elder sister with bone marrow donations and other genetic materials. But when Kate's illness causes kidney failure, Anna balks at the idea of being a donor once again.

Despite Sara's objections, Anna seeks out the help of a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to achieve medical emancipation from her parents, causing more turmoil than the family has ever seen.

It's a three-way showdown to see who can best bring out the waterworks.

Vassilieva wins hands down as perpetual hospital resident Kate, whom we see go through a hellish childhood - complete with chemotherapy-induced baldness - through flashbacks.

Still, Diaz and Breslin provide great moments as feuding mother and daughter, with Diaz a formidable mother figure and Breslin precocious as ever as Anna, guilt-ridden with how her actions are hurting the people around her.

The male family members are no less crucial - Patric is more sensitive than he has been in years as the peacemaker father, and Ellingson is good as oldest child Jesse, a high school dropout who barely registers on his parents' radar with all their other worries.

Baldwin is convincing as Campbell Alexander, a high profile ambulance chaser whose motivation for taking Anna's case is shrouded in mystery. Likewise, Joan Cusack has a small but sincere role as the judge who hears the case.

As a commentary on the ethics of super science, Jodi Picoult's novel is iffy at best, and the film version fortunately doesn't delve into these murky waters.

Familial discord is at the forefront, and "The Notebook" director Nick Cassavetes really knows how to tug on the heartstrings.

But as misty-eyed as it may make the majority of the crowd, the latest in the "dying child" subgenre isn't as emotionally effective as it should be.

The screenplay by Cassavetes and Jeremy Leven changes and condenses numerous portions of Picoult's novel, gleaning over important characters like Brian and Jesse in favor of cluttered courtroom scenes that don't work well in the scope of the movie's running time.

The setup misleads us as no less than six characters have voiceovers explaining their side of the story. This is completely useless as Anna quickly becomes the sole narrator.

But the frustration of these failed techniques melts away with the help of the actors, who really seem to bond onscreen.

"My Sister's Keeper" may not be the strongest melodrama to be released in recent years, but thanks to the cast, you can feel comfortable in feeling nice and weepy.

So pass the Kleenex, please.

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