23-year old Ann (Sarah Polley) is the mother of two pretty young girls and the much-loved wife of her husband Don (Scott Speedman). They struggle to make ends meet and live in a cramped trailer on her mother's property. Don is often unemployed and Ann works nights as a janitor at the local college - which she could never afford to attend - until, one day, she collapses. A checkup reveals that she had formed a tumor on her uterus but, while it would not be a problem in an older woman, her youthful metabolism has accelerated the cancer's spread and she learns that she has only months to live in "My Life Without Me."
A shy, gentle doctor breaks the bad news to Ann and her first reaction is that her condition not be told to her family and friends. Rather than burden those she loves with her coming demise, she decides to keep it to herself and makes a list of 'things to do before I die.' Her list runs the range from the seemingly silly, like getting her nails professionally done, to the much more serious: making tape recordings for her daughters to be played at each of their birthdays until they reach eighteen; words of comfort and advice for Don and her mother; find a replacement wife for Don; visit her jailed father whom she has not seen for 10 years; and, sleep with another man. Ann has always been faithful to her husband but now wants to experience what it is like to be with another man before she dies
Slowly and surely Ann fulfills each item on her checklist. She invites her weight-obsessed co-worker Laurie (Amanda Plummer) over for dinner as a gesture of kindness. She helps the shy doctor to better help those that need comfort in their illnesses and gets him to agree to ration out the cassette tapes to her girls to be sure they get a new one every birthday. She checks out her neighbor, also named Ann (Leonor Watling), a pretty pediatric nurse who loves kids, is single and, the dying Ann deems, a suitable replacement for her. Ann also confronts her mother and makes her see that she is wasting her life and can do better. She makes the trip to the prison for a last face-to-face with her father and, all the while, keeps everyone's questions about her health at bay with the glib explanation that she is anemic.
One night, when she can't sleep, she goes to the local Laundromat and meets a quiet, seemingly troubled young man, Lee (Mark Ruffalo). He volunteers to get them coffee and, while gone, Ann falls asleep. He returns and covers her sleeping figure with his overcoat and proceeds to sit and watch the pretty young woman in her slumber. When she awakens she realizes what he was doing but is not unnerved by it. He insists that she wear his coat and she leaves with the promise to return it. She does and, quietly, a romance blossoms and Ann is able to check off another item while help Lee to make his life whole once again.
"My Life Without Me" belongs to Sarah Polley. The actress came to my attention, first, as a teenager in Atom Egoyan's powerful drama "The Sweet Hereafter" and I was convinced then that she is someone to watch. In "My Life..." she commands the screen and gives her character presence as Ann makes decisions that will affect those that she loves. The premise of "My Life Without Me" is akin to that of the Michael Keaton film, "This Is My Life," but works far better and with much less schmarm and sentimentality, mainly due to Polley. She reminds me of Jodie Foster when the Oscar winning actress was of the same age.
The supporting cast is serviceable but mostly without much note. One exception is Deborah Harry as Ann's mother. She runs a bakery and spends most of her life toiling away at her ovens. Hers is not a very happy or satisfying life and one of her few pleasures is to tell her granddaughters bedtime stories - usually a remembered screen story from old Joan Crawford movies. Harry evokes real sympathy for her loneliness and you applaud when she breaks out of her mundane existence at the end.
The rest of the cast do yeoman's work but don't have the opportunity to give full dimension to the background characters. Scott Speedman gives a smiling, optimistic performance as Ann's husband Don and is likable as the erratically employed but loving husband and father. Mark Ruffalo's Lee, as Ann's romantic fling from her checklist, is a lonely divorced man whose ex has cleaned him out and he has not coped well with it, living like hermit with his books and no furniture. His short, but intense, relationship with the dying young mother helps him heal, even as he realizes that he is losing his new love. Leonor Watling, as Ann's neighbor, is obvious as the checklist item of finding a new wife for Don. Alfred Molina is uncredited as Ann's jailbird father whom she goes to see before she dies.
Writer-director Isabel Coixet used the story "Pretending the Bed Is a Raft," by Nanci Kincaid, as the inspiration for "My Life Without Me," but radically changed the direction of her adaptation. Kincaid's story has Ann telling everyone of her plight. Coixet's decision to have Ann keep her tragedy to herself changes the entire dynamic and allows for a strongly defined character study, by Polley, of a selfless and brave young woman.
"My Life Without Me" is both sad and hopeful as it tells how a tragic event can have positive ramifications. It is also a treatise on the power of love. I give it a B.
Ann (Sarah Polley, "No Such Thing") is a twenty-three year old school janitor who lives in a small trailer in her mother's (Deborah Harry, "Spun") backyard with her unemployed husband Dan (Scott Speedman, "Dark Blue") and two young daughters. When she passes out at work and goes for an exam, a shy young doctor (Julian Richings) must deliver almost incomprehensible news - Ann has terminal cancer and 2-3 months left to live. Resolved to tell no one of her fate, Ann writes a list of things she wants to accomplish before she has to contemplate "My Life Without Me."
Director Isabel Coixet ("A los que Aman") is far more successful than writer Isabel Coixet (who adapted the short story "Pretending the Bed is a Raft"), who has concocted a fantastical tale where too many characters are too good to be true. However Coixet makes some refreshingly unusual directorial choices and star Sarah Polley shines as the downtrodden young woman who radiates life while facing death.
Ann is established as a big-hearted blue collar worker with wonderful mothering skills (she engages her girls' imaginations with such fancies as pretending their bed is a raft) and a supportive relationship with her optimistic husband. Polley's narration tells us that Dan was Ann's first relationship, she had her first child at 17, second at 19 and that her dad's been in jail for ten years, not leaving her much time to think. Ann tries not to get dragged down by her mother's lamentations over broken dreams and lost hopes. Continuing in this spirit, when she receives her death sentence, Ann is determined to make her daughters feel loved and leave them a legacy, take a trip to the beach, spiff up her appearance, smoke and drink, say what she thinks, make love to another man, get someone to fall in love with her, visit her dad, give good advice to her mother and husband and find him a new wife. Except for that family outing, she accomplishes everything.
Coixet's script is a frustrating mix of the lyrical and absurd, emotionally true and sentimentally cliched. Ann's first attempt to fix her unsuspecting husband up, with her diet-obsessed coworker, Laurie (Amanda Plummer, "Ken Park"), gives the couple a believable chance to laugh over their evening ('She ate eight ribs!' 'She's a really nice person.'), but a new neighbor (Leonor Watling, "Talk to Her") willing to watch Ann's two young children turning out to be named Ann is a little too neat. Except for his earning ability, Dan is the perfect spouse which puts a lot of strain on our ability to engage in Ann's romance with Lee (Mark Ruffalo, "View from the Top"). Then, once we do, it is difficult not to find Ann's behavior unfair to the besotted young man.
Coixet makes some refreshingly unusual choices, though, that keep lifting her film above the typical woman's weepie. As Ann is kept waiting during her initial hospital visit, she frets about her girls being picked up at school. 'Do you know what it's like to be waiting at school with your nose freezing off?' she asks the nurse. 'Yes' is the reply as said nurse flashes back to her own experience. Ann wanders into the supermarket after an assignation with Lee and all its inhabitants begin to dance, expressing her emotions. Coixet also makes effective and restrained use of slo-mo, in addition to terrific musical selections. Cinematographer Jean Claude Larrieu achieves the chill of the Vancouver locations.
Coixet is incredibly perceptive in her casting as well. One cannot imagine anyone but Sarah Polley as the clear-eyed, determined Ann whose capacity for love continues to grow as her life span shortens. She's a natural mother and lover, a force that nudges people towards their optimal selves. She has great chemistry with both the immensely likeable Speedman and the dreamy romantic Ruffalo (who will break your heart at film's end). Watling has a great scene that is essentially her 'tryout' as Dan's wife, where she recounts nursing Siamese twins for their last thirty hours of life. Richings makes a big impression in scant screen time as Ann's doctor, who comes out of his shell as he helps Ann prepare for death. Maria de Madeiros ("Pulp Fiction") provides comic relief as a hairdresser fixated on Milli Vanilla braids. Harry is solid as a disappointed woman who nonetheless continues to take chances, but an uncredited Alfred Molina is saddled with an awkwardly written scene as Ann's dad.
"My Life Without Me" so easily could have been dreadful, but Coixet's imaginative handling of her somewhat problematic material and a terrific cast make it worthwhile.
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