“Decoding Annie Parker,” starring Samantha Morton and Helen Hunt, traces the discovery of the breast cancer gene through the lives of two women — one who carries it, one who uncovers it.
Based on two true stories, this modest indie with major ambitions is directed by veteran cinematographer Steven Bernstein, making a solid feature debut. He uses the barely intersecting lives of Annie Parker (Morton), who lost her mother and sister to the disease before being diagnosed with it herself, and geneticist Mary-Claire King (Hunt), to dissect the search for the BRCA-1 gene in both personal and scientific terms.
Though the film opens as Parker arrives late to a lecture by King — a brief encounter that will bookend the film — their individual travails run on very separate, if remarkably parallel, tracks.
As the title suggests, the emphasis is on Annie. Parker’s battle against breast cancer — she’s fought three rounds with the disease thus far — and her insistent fight to understand it make for a compelling story. The screenplay, written by Bernstein, his son, Adam, and Michael Moss, takes us deep into the personal agonies of a family ravaged by breast cancer.
That the story resonates so deeply is due in large measure to Morton. The actress, who’s building an exceptional body of work playing ordinary women, gives Parker such a humility within a warm humanity that you feel an obligation to stick with her through the mounting horrors.
The film begins with her childhood, Parker and her older sister trying to play quietly because Mom’s sick and getting sicker. Mom dies, Annie grows up and falls in love with Paul. “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul does a very good job of making Annie’s Paul a lovable loser, then a less-lovable louse.
Then in 1980 Annie discovers a lump. As the losses stack up, Parker becomes convinced the cancer in her family is not random, or not, as one doctor tells her, a run of bad luck.
As Annie is launching her own search for answers with the help of a progressive doctor (Corey Stoll) and his nurse (Rashida Jones), the film shifts the playing field to the focused scientist, rigid and rigorous in her approach and embattled in her own way.
Hunt gives King a steely spine and an unwavering belief that she is right, which helps when grants bypass her and colleagues question her work. Like King’s research assistants, we are soon trailing her as the search for the DNA link to breast cancer goes on in spite of the difficulties.
As good as Hunt is, she’s given little to do beyond sort papers, evaluate data and look steely.
Not surprising given Bernstein’s cinematography background, the film captures the look of the 1980s and ‘90s when much of the story unfolds. But the division between the personal and scientific stories is not a clean one. It gives the film an uneven rhythm as it at times lurches between the two women’s very separate lives. As significant as King’s work is, the power of the film fades any time it moves away from decoding Annie Parker.
‘Decoding Annie Parker’
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: At AMC Town 8, Burbank; Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; also on VOD
[For the record 6:15 pm May 1: An earlier version of this review said that “Decoding Annie Parker” was playing at the AMC Burbank 16. The correct Burbank theater is the AMC Town 8.]