"My Life Without Me" has an authentic look and feel of gritty blue-collar life in British Columbia and has been made with dedication and commitment, but its depiction of dying at an early age is as romantic and sanitized as if it had been made in Hollywood. A splendid cast, coupled with Isabel Coixet's deeply committed writing and direction, goes a long way to make this movie affecting to watch even it if doesn't hold up well to reflection once the lights go up.
In the film's early moments, Sarah Polley's lovely 23-year-old Ann, after doubling up in pain and fainting, is told that she has a fast-spreading ovarian cancer that is beyond help and that she has but two to three months to live. She opts to keep the dire news to herself, both to spare her family and friends, telling them that she is being treated for anemia, and to use the time left to set her life in order.
Ann's plight is especially poignant, not only because she is so young but also because her life has been so hard and narrow. At the very last concert of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Ann met her future husband, Don (Scott Speedman); she became a mother at 17 and again at 19. She and her family live in a cramped trailer in her mother's backyard.
Don is sweet, loving and handsome but, because early marriage and children cut off educational and professional opportunities, the couple live hand to mouth. Ann is a night-shift janitor at the university she could not afford to attend; after a long layoff as a factory worker, Don has landed a job with a swimming pool contractor. They have never been able to take a vacation.
A woman of superior intelligence and resilient character, Ann eschews self-pity, holds up her head and seeks fulfillment as a loving, devoted mother to her two adorable daughters and as loyal wife to a man she loves but who seems no match for her in intellect or imagination.
To her conventional list of things to do before she runs out of time she adds an unexpected item: "Get someone to fall in love with me."
Rather too conveniently, at a Laundromat, she quickly encounters Lee, a surveyor whose girlfriend has just ditched him. And who better to play a young man overflowing with warm, caring sensitivity than soulful Mark Ruffalo? Yet again Ann has a terrific piece of luck: A beautiful young nurse (Leonor Watling) becomes her new next-door neighbor and takes to Ann's children so swiftly Ann has reason to hope she might take to Don as well when the time comes.
The depiction of Ann's disease bears little relationship to reality. Already pale, Ann may get a tad paler, but that's the extent of her visible symptoms. Buoyed by pain pills, she is miraculously spared all the other indignities and deterioration usually associated with cancer and somehow manages to add a clandestine romance to her busy schedule. Ann's plight may be real and tragic, but the way it develops is too good to be true: Life is rarely so neat, so easily tied up in such a short time.
Polley is beguiling, and the entire cast, which includes a memorable Deborah Harry as Ann's hard-working, still sultry but world-weary mother; Amanda Plummer as Ann's caring co-worker; and Maria de Medeiros as a creative, free-spirited hairdresser, is highly appealing. Interestingly, Pedro Almodóvar and his brother, Agustín, are two of the film's three executive producers. "My Life Without Me" could have benefited from Pedro's tough-minded sense of life's absurdities.
'My Life Without Me'
MPAA rating: R for language.
Times guidelines: Adult themes, too intense for younger audiences.
Sarah Polley ... Ann
Mark Ruffalo ... Lee
Deborah Harry ... Ann's mother
Scott Speedman ... Don
Amanda Plummer ... Laurie
A Sony Pictures Classics presentation of an El Deseo and Milestone co-production. Writer-director Isabel Coixet. Producers Esther García, Gordon McLennan. Executive producers Pedro Almodóvar, Agustín Almodóvar, Ogden Gavanski. Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu. Editor Lisa Robison. Music Alfonso Vilallonga. Costumes Katia Stano. Production designer Carol Lavallee. Art director-set decorator Shelley Bolton. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
At selected theaters.
'My Life Without Me'
Too much romance and too little realism characterize Isabel Coixet's sad but overly sanitized "Life."
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