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My Sister's Keeper

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // November 17, 2009
List Price: $28.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted November 18, 2009 | E-mail the Author
My Sister's Keeper:
There's no denying the powerful themes on display in My Sister's Keeper; parents will have some hard times watching the movie about a childhood leukemia victim. On the other hand this movie, adapted from Jodi Picoult's novel, has been fairly radically altered from its printed form - the gist is the same, the ending quite different - something that may rankle purists looking to see a faithful adaptation. Another aspect that keeps this movie from being the truly devastating tear-jerker it ought to be is screaming Hollywood-ization, the kind that places Cameron Diaz in the pivotal mother's role, (not that she does a bad job, it's just that she's Cameron Diaz, if you know what I'm saying) and further distances viewers emotionally with a number of knee-jerk movie tropes that will have critical or cynical viewers heaving little exasperated sighs when they'd rather be sobbing.

Director Nick (The Notebook) Cassavetes' adaptation finds a family in crisis. Told through a series of flashbacks, we're introduced to the Fitzgeralds: Sara (Diaz) is a once-powerful lawyer now spending time caring for her kids in a fabulous home. Her firefighter husband Brian (Jason Patric) grows more troubled as the family deals with daughter Kate's (Sofia Vassilieva of Medium) leukemia. At risk brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) and sister Anna (Abigail Breslin) are almost forgotten as people. Anna especially has troubles, as she was virtually engineered to be a blood, marrow and organ donor for her sick sister. Finally balking at giving up a kidney, Anna hires Lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to help her achieve 'medical emancipation,' and the tear-stained sparks fly.

An almost corny, Hallmark-style opening doesn't bode well: gauzy shots of familial frolic - with bubbles! - lead one to believe we'll be treated to schmaltz with a capital S. But suddenly, Kate hemorrhages, spewing blood from her nose and mouth, reinforcing the idea that we're dealing with Strong Themes. These themes are Keepers' blessing and curse. It's impossible to argue against the trauma of having a terminally ill child; what would you do? What could you do? In fact every time you might be inclined to check out of the story, you're reminded of this deep emotional pain. Yet as issues of body-control and right-to-die rear their heads, you wonder whether the source material isn't some sort of response to the whole Terri Schiavo controversy. Anna's legal battle to control her own body (though she's only eleven) and Kate's desire to simply enjoy the life she has, speak of a possible agenda. Moreover, Sara's intractable need to help Kate no matter what, a need that casts her as a dangerous control-freak shrew, seems to write large, obliterate actually, any subtle shadings this story might have.

But here we go again, the compelling story, patly told, keeps returning to its undeniably strong subject matter. It's a foolproof scheme, meaning nearly everyone can eat their cake and have it, too. Just as you're about to lose it with deep sadness, an overlong, Hollywood-feel-good-musical-montage comes along to mess things up. You'll either give in to boldly manipulative cheese, or be turned off. But then Kate meets a boy, and you feel her tragic, desperate need to simply live. If this emotional seesaw wears you down, a series of solid performances will buoy you. Though Sara's a bit of a caricature, Diaz fully commits, (even though you never forget she's Diaz) while Patric's underplayed Brian is probably the most naturalistic character in the movie. Baldwin brings sly gravity to his mysterious lawyer, while Breslin has maybe the most complex character; the young actress nails sisterly lack of guile with seemingly no effort. Vassilieva does the saintly suffering thing with aplomb. She's equally comfortable and convincing when she's vomiting blood, as she is while soothing her mom, telling her everything is going to be OK. And here we go again, choking up in the face of the unimaginable - not just losing a child, but also watching it happen slowly, with years of sick foreknowledge. My Sister's Keeper is by no means perfect. It takes a near-facile hot-button subject, amping it up with Hollywood vibes, and sits back to watch the tears flow. But with all that, anyone with a heart will be moved to some degree. Parents will be sure to give their little ones an extra hug before bed. Kleenex, please?

The DVD

Video:
The 2.35:1 widescreen ratio presentation (or 1.33:1 fullscreen if you prefer, both are available on this disc) is not spectacular - about DVD-average, with a little bit of grain, super-saturated colors and just-OK levels of detail. Maybe needlessly dumping a fullscreen version of the movie on the disc wasn't such a good idea, since this definitely doesn't look like a new release major studio DVD.

Sound:
Both English Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio and the Spanish language equivalent seem perfectly fine, but not spectacular. Obviously the movie isn't loaded with special effects, so the mix is fairly pedestrian. Dialog is always discernible, mixed appropriately with the frequently manipulative soundtrack, though plenty of whispering will inspire you to click that volume up a notch higher than usual.

Extras:
Packed in one of those new, flimsy eco-keepcases, Keeper stints on the extras. A code for a Digital Copy download is included in the case, and you're provided with the option of watching either Widescreen or Fullscreen Versions. 16 minutes of Deleted Scenes are fairly interesting. Most seem to have been cut for pacing (if we can believe the fashion in which they're sandwiched between clips that made the cut) and mostly (except for one scene) don't impact the plot so much as flesh out characters in a tangential way. SDH Subtitling (I realize that's redundant) and Spanish 5.1 Audio cap things off.

Final Thoughts:
My Sister's Keeper, flaws and all, has the power to move you on some level. Can't-fail subject matter finds a family struggling with the possible loss of their daughter, and explores the lengths to which they'll go to forestall that event. Even as this virtual treatise on health-rights pounds you with Hollywood techniques to activate the lachrymal glands, it grants you plenty of heartfelt performances and moments that legitimately give you pause. If you like the tear-jerkers, this mixed bag won't seriously disappoint, but merits only a Rent It.

www.kurtdahlke.com

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