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A spare life

Movies | My Sister's Keeper doesn't do justice to the serious issues it raises

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

It says something about the morally complex issues brought up in the new film My Sister's Keeper (rated PG-13 for sensuality, language, and brief teen drinking) that viewers can walk away from the story with totally different ideas of what exactly those issues are.

Based on the best-selling Jodi Picoult novel, the film focuses on 11-year-old Anna (Abigail Breslin), a child genetically engineered to provide spare parts to her leukemia-stricken sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Though that is a harsh (yet accurate) description, Anna's family is a close one. Her parents Brian and Sara (Jason Patric and Cameron Diaz) love both of their daughters, yet they cannot escape two awful realities: One, from her birth they have required Anna to undergo painful and frightening procedures to donate her blood, bone marrow, and stem cells to her sister; two, despite all these medical interventions, 16-year-old Kate is still dying. Her only hope, and it is a temporary measure at best, is if Anna gives Kate her kidney.

Sara takes it for granted that her youngest child will be willing to make any sacrifice to try to save her sister, but, to her shock, she finds that Anna has had enough. Resenting the reason she was conceived "in a petri dish," as she puts it, as well as her parents' blasé assumption that she has no rights over her body, Anna hires an attorney (Alec Baldwin) to fight for medical emancipation.

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Clearly such a premise opens on a whole range of ethical questions as technology makes new treatments possible-embryonic stem cell research and cloning not being the least of these-but not necessarily advisable. So it was with interest that I read Roger Ebert's review in the Chicago Sun-Times that reduced these questions to their meanest denominator, writing, "It's a practical parable about the debate between pro-choice and pro-life. If you're pro-life, you would require Anna to donate her kidney, although there is a chance she could die, and her sister doesn't have a good prognosis. If you're pro-choice, you would support Anna's lawsuit."

As one of the pro-lifers Ebert refers to, my reaction while watching the film was entirely different. Sara's fierceness in facing the loss of her daughter is understandable, as is her willingness to try any kind of radical intervention to save Kate's life. Yet to create a child through in-vitro fertilization specifically for the purpose of providing genetically compatible material to another child feels like crossing a line. We sympathize with Sara just as we sympathize with those who suffer from terrible diseases or disabilities and cling to the most remote medical hope for a solution.

But Sara's increasing hysteria and anger with the rest of her family reveal that there is something inherently horrific in forcing others to surrender their rights and, in some cases, their right to life, to prolong another life or make that life more comfortable. As we watch her battle in the courtroom for access to Anna's kidney, it begins to seem more and more as though she has made an idol of Kate's life, sacrificing everything, including her marriage and the well-being of her other children, to it.

Unfortunately, writer/director Nick Cassavetes, best known for his romantic tear-jerker The Notebook, doesn't follow these thorny problems to any kind of conclusion. He doesn't even allow them to rest realistically in a place that lacks a conclusion. Instead, the plot takes a contrived turn that renders almost everything that has gone before it pointless. From that point on, he fills the screen with close-ups of a dying Kate, maudlin voiceovers, and montages of alternately tragic and idyllic family life that bring to mind Flannery O'Connor's observations about sentimentality being akin to pornography. It is effective, but only in the most shallow, manipulative way, and results in a cowardly, movie-of-the-week exit that isn't worthy of these engaging sisters.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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