“My Sister’s Keeper” unfolds around Kate Fitzgerald, a 14-year-old girl with leukemia, but it is fundamentally about the dynamics of a family defined by her illness. Based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Jodi Picoult, it’s difficult to keep the floodgates from swinging open and drenching the eyes even for a few scenes. In this way, director Nick Cassavetes (working from a screenplay copenned with Jeremy Leven) is extremely effective in building this often harrowing tale of illness and familial love. On the other hand it’s hard to shake off the feeling of being manipulated, sensory-molested and finally being enraged at all diseases and accidents that affect the very young. See the film on a bad day and you’re likely to sink into depression for days to come.
But Cassavetes — though sometimes he cuts it real close — never mires the story in the marshlands of maudlin. There’s humor, there’s irony. And befitting the film’s backdrop of Southern California, the sorrow and pain and moral dilemmas are all conducted under a bright sun and brilliant blue sky, emphasizing the family’s incredible strength and capacity for happiness even as we witness the disintegration of their relationships.
The 11-year-old Anna (Abigail Breslin), whose in vitro birth had been “engineered” by doctors to function as a veritable organ bank for her sister, Kate (Sofia Vasselieva), is the first to voice her dissent loud and clear. Anna enlists the aid of hotshot lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to win “medical emancipation” from her parents who want her to donate a kidney to prolong Kate’s life. Since birth, Anna had already given blood, stem cells and bone marrow — in her young life she had undergone eight major operations.
That had mostly been the decision of the mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), who had treated Kate’s illness as a project she refused to abandon or admit defeat to. Sara had been a successful lawyer but she gave that up to devote herself full-time to caring for Kate and preparing huge organic meals three times a day, helped by her sister, Aunt Kelly (Heather Wahlquist), who had moved into the household for that purpose. As Kate herself describes it: “My mother gave up everything — her career, her marriage, her own happiness — just to fight my battles.”
Sara’s Herculean efforts have resulted in a closeknit, loving family revolving around Kate, whom all the doctors agree is a miracle cancer patient, living long past her predicted survival date. They’ve also taken a toll on her relations with husband Brian (Jason Patric), with whom she hasn’t had a meaningful conversation that’s not about Kate in a long time. Her son, Jesse (Evan Ellingson), has dyslexia that went undetected until he had to be sent away to a special school to fix it, and now as a teenager his parents don’t even notice when he goes out at night and doesn’t come back.
Among her children, alliances are forged and secrets discussed. Brian understands and tries to help all three siblings, but Sara can’t see past Kate’s white-cell count and chances for survival.
She’s also fiercely possessive about her daughter — in one telling scene, Brian takes the kids to the beach (against Sara’s adamant protests) and when he’s sitting on the sand with Kate sharing a blanket over their shoulders, Sara stomps up from behind, cuts in and separates the pair so she can put her own arms around Kate.
Sara is a crusader, and she soldiers doggedly on even as Kate gently, almost imperceptibly rebels, and Anna’s case for emancipation is taken to court. Diaz’s performance is striking, not only because she takes the kind of risks unexpected of a Hollywood actress (appearing makeup less and shaving her head — in solidarity with Kate — among others) but because she portrays the anguish and pain of a mother who KNOWS she has to say goodbye, but can’t will herself to do so. As director Nick Cassavetes put it best when describing Sara: “She turns herself into a difficult person to get along with, but if I get sick I would definitely want her on my side.” Kate knew it, and her knowledge and deep understanding of Sara tinges the film with an almost magical beauty.