October 19, 2003

My Life Without Me

Starring Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo and Scott Speedman

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Depending on whether schmaltzy tearjerkers are your cup of tea, My Life Without Me may profoundly move you or endlessly irritate you. The Vancouver-set film boasts a plot that bares all the characteristics of the movie of the week on a women’s network: A terminal illness, a pseudo-feminist extra-marital affair, and an eating disorder … etc. Which is not always a bad thing, if the film happens to be well made like this beautifully fatalistic treasure. But for those who discriminate against “chick flicks,” this one can be particularly hard to bear.

Sarah Polley portrays Ann, a young mother who has just learned that she is terminally ill and has only a few weeks to live. She copes with the news by making a to-do list: “Tell my daughters I love them several times a day.” “Don’t tell anyone, ever.” “Find Don (Scott Speedman) a new wife.” “Record birthday messages for each girl through 18 years old.” “Smoke and drink as much as I want.” “Sleep with another man just to see what it’s like.” “Make someone fall in love with me.” You get the idea.

While the film narcissistically frets over Ann’s impending death, it also manages to find quite a few tear-inducing tender moments. Writer-director Isabel Coixet has stamped the film with many loving touches. She frequently juxtaposes Ann’s cinematic and poetic voice-over narration with exquisitely ordinary small talk exchanged among characters. Fragmented editing and an eclectic soundtrack gently punctuate some of the film’s most poignant moments, such as one fantasy sequence where customers at a grocery store dance to “Senza Fine” by the great Gino Paoli.

Polley, who has given many memorable performances in supporting roles, finally has an opportunity to shine in the lead. Her unsentimental yet effective portrayal prevents the film from lapsing into melodrama. As Ann’s lover, Lee, Mark Ruffalo gives another sensitive and soulful performance similar to his turns in You Can Count on Me and XX/XY. The supporting cast, which features Deborah Harry and Amanda Plummer, is uniformly strong. The only exception is Speedman, who doesn’t do much here but smile on cue.

When Ann ultimately dies at the end, she has left her mark on all of the characters and transformed their lives forever. At this juncture, the film certainly has satisfied those who enjoy a good cry. Meanwhile, more cynical viewers may choose to completely misinterpret Ann’s legacy and be disturbed by how Ann manages to meddle with everyone’s life even after her untimely death.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.