Just after the screen went dark at the screening I attended of "My Sister's Keeper," someone nearby let out a loud sigh.
I don't know whether it was from holding back tears or just the sound of relief. Either way, I understood.
"My Sister's Keeper" is a lovely, lyrical and emotionally tough film. It could wear you out.
But I'd say it's worth it. "Keeper" is a film that, by description, could have been manipulative. Instead, in the hands of director Nick Cassavetes and his very able cast, it is layered and thoughful -- and a lot like life: funny, difficult, sweet.
Based on a book by best-selling author Jodi Picoult, "My Sister's Keeper" tells the story of the Fitzgerald family. There are three children in the family, but it is Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) who takes center stage because she has leukemia.
That condition causes the mother (Cameron Diaz) to stop working as a lawyer and instead use her perfectionist (and controlling) style in the role of a full-time crusader, making perfect meals and doing whatever it takes to keep her daughter from dying.
Her husband (Jason Patric) is a kind firefighter who pretty much stays out of her way.
Kate's illness is taking a toll on the family, especially the other children. Jesse (Evan Ellingson) is unintentionally left to his own devices and seems perpetually lost. Daughter Anna (Abigail Breslin) was born, created really, to be a genetically receptive donor to her sister. Now 11, she tires of that role and goes to a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents for control of her body.
What's beautifully done in this film, or one of the things beautifully done, is that there's never any doubt this is a loving family. The parents love each other and they love all the children, and everyone seems to know they are loved.
It's just that this situation -- at its heart, the acceptance of death -- is bigger than they are, and navigating it isn't easy.
The narrative shifts so that each character gets to tell a piece of the story, but Cassavetes never loses control. He finds perfect little moments that mean a lot.
For instance, there's a scene when the Fitzgerald parents are sitting with Kate's doctor, after she is diagnosed, baby Jesse on dad's lap, and the doctor is telling them they aren't genetic matches. Mom asks about Jesse, and he isn't a match either, and then the idea of creating a genetic donor is raised. You can almost see Jesse getting pushed aside. He's becoming the child who doesn't have a defined part in this personal drama.
While Diaz doesn't have the depth that would make her performance soulful, she is convincing as a mom; even in her sunny, California girl roles you can see her as a nurturer. She easily conveys that mama backbone: you can see the steel in her that would make her fight Anna in court, and the same steel that would keep her loving her "wayward" daughter.
The soulfulness resides in Vassilieva. It's easy to have sympathy for the sick child, but Vassilieva doesn't rest on that. Her Kate shows the wisdom gained through trial, while still revealing the heart of a teenage girl who just wants to look pretty. Breslin, too, is winning, as is Baldwin; honestly there isn't a bad performance in this film.
Cassavetes' vignette style means there are a lot of scenes with melancholy pop music. Somehow he manages not to make them sappy.
Still, you'll probably cry, or at least water up, while watching "My Sister's Keeper."
But it's not a cheap cry. It's earned by a film exploring the unanswerable questions of life and the bittersweet taste of acceptance.