Sunday 29 September 2019

Movie Review: My Life Without Me (2003)

An end-of-life drama, My Life Without Me is a perceptive portrayal of a pragmatic mindset triggered by the final countdown.

In Vancouver, 23 year old Ann (Sarah Polley) works as an overnight janitor, is married to her high school sweetheart and swimming pool builder Don (Scott Speedman), and is the mother of two young daughters. Her family is poor but happy living in a cramped mobile home parked in her mother's backyard (mom is played by Deborah Harry, of Blondie fame). Ann receives a shocking diagnosis of terminal cancer: she has at most three months to live. She decides to not tell anyone, and makes a list of things to accomplish in her remaining time.

This includes speaking her mind at all times, having an affair, finding a replacement wife and mother for Don and the girls, and recording birthday messages for both daughters until they reach the age of 18. At the laundromat she meets lonely land surveyor Lee (Mark Ruffalo) and they start to fall in love, while she tests her co-worker Laurie (Amanda Plummer) and a new neighbour also called Ann (Leonor Watling) as potential replacements for herself.

When life's finish line appears surprisingly early and is suddenly within touching distance, what are the remaining priorities? My Life Without Me tackles this question with a steely, matter-of-fact determination but is nevertheless drenched in tears of emotion and loss. An adaptation of the book Pretending the Bed Is a Raft by Nanci Kincaid, the film is written and directed by Isabel Coixet, and unashamedly breaks most conventions.

This is not a typical story of heroic treatments, hospital visits, forgiveness, redemption and a family rallying around a tragedy. By keeping her imminent demise a secret, Ann steps outside her routine while everyone else carries on unperturbed, allowing two intertwined narratives to unfurl in tandem.

The working class family continues to deal with the mundane tasks of making ends meet, looking after the kids, and tolerating Ann's mom's idiosyncrasies. On her own Ann is simultaneously working through her bucket list, making sure she is expressing her love and thoughts, being a present wife, mother, and daughter, and stealing private moments to record greetings for birthdays she will never attend. She also audaciously plots to find a woman who can fill the void her death will create, and ponders the wisdom of visiting her imprisoned and estranged dad (an uncredited Alfred Molina).

And most of all, as a woman who settled down with her one and only man upon becoming pregnant at 17, she pines to experience another love, and her bittersweet potential romance with Lee is full of short-term promise. Ann's honest selfishness in seeking an affair to feel alive is a stark humanization of a compelling character, and Sarah Polley redefines independent and lonely courage in a poignant performance.

Coixet does overelaborate a few scenes featuring the young daughters Penny and Patsy, and is guilty of always looking for new sources of tears. But overall, My Life Without Me looks death in the eye, and crafts refreshingly new terms of engagement.

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