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My Sisterís Keeper

Family Drama (and Trauma)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

When a bestselling novel makes the jump from the printed page to the big screen, fans inevitably compare the adaptation to the source material, often finding fault in the adaptation for a lack of faithfulness or fidelity to the novel. Sometimes, however, filmmakers err in the opposite direction, in sticking so closely to what they perceive are the novelís unique qualities that they forgot that narrative techniques that work on the page often donít work in a primarily visual medium like film.

Unfortunately, in adapting My Sisterís Keeper, Jodi Picoultís bestselling novel, writer-director Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog, The Notebook, Sheís So Lovely) made exactly that mistake, carrying over the narrative techniques and devices (e.g., multiple narrators, interior monologues, and a non-linear structure) that, instead of bringing moviegoers closer to the characters and their experiences, results in the opposite effect.

Cassavetes introduces each member of the Fitzgerald family through voiceover narration, starting with Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin). Anna was conceived as a ďdonor babyĒ for her older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Kate suffered from leukemia from an early age and with no genetic matches to her immediate family, her parents, Sara (Cameron Diaz), a former attorney, and Brian (Jason Patric), a firefighter, took the radical step of having Anna conceived as a donor for her sister.

At eleven, Anna has undergone several procedures, including bone marrow transplants, to help her sister, but with Kate now needing a kidney transplant, Anna, concerned for her future well being, solicits the help of an attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). Alexander sues Sara and Brian for Annaís medical emancipation, a decision, which granted, will give Anna autonomy over future medical decisions.

What starts out, however, as a legal drama centered on medical and ethical complications soon switches to a more conventional family drama, focusing on Kate from an early age through her teenage years, the early years in Sara and Brianís marriage, Saraís intransigence (saving Kate becomes her lifeís goal, to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else), Brianís growing doubts about the paths theyíve chosen for Kate and Anna, and the ongoing neglect toward the fifth member of the Fitzgerald family, Jesse (Evan Ellingson), a sullen, introspective teenager. My Sisterís Keeper only returns to Annaís case late in the film, after Cassavetes has wrung every emotion possible from Kateís circumstances and Annaís dilemma.

Both Kate and Anna are, unsurprisingly, sympathetic figures, but a third-act reveal (different, luckily, from the novel), serves to undercut the dilemma at the center of Annaís case. But where Cassavetes gives Kate and Annaís stories adequate screen time to explore their lives and complicated relationship as sisters, he gives far less time to Sara, Brian, and especially Jesse, who, despite getting his own voiceover introduction, barely gets any screen time and when he does, itís to brood.

Structure and screen time aside, Cassavetes really erred by including the voiceover introductions and interior monologues. Theyíre filled with painfully obvious, banal observations from the character; they intermittently repeat or describe information weíre seeing visually, paradoxically creating an alienating barrier between the characters and the audience. Cassavetes should have either eliminated the voiceovers completely or focused only on Anna and Kate.

My Sisterís Keeper has one saving grace (well, almost). An actor himself (and, of course, the son of actor-writer-director John Cassavetes), Cassavetes elicits subtly modulated performances from his cast, which in turns helps to moderate the more melodramatic elements inherent in the source material. Sofia Vassilieva deserves special mention for infusing Kate with emotional depth and a keen awareness of her familyís complex feelings toward her illness. She convincingly conveys Kateís changing emotional states and the tragic progression of her disease without resorting to histrionics (again, credit to Cassavetes). Acting, however, is only one aspect of filmmaking and here itís not enough to elevate My Sisterís Keeper beyond the merely mediocre.