If I explained the plot of My Life Without Me, half of you would cringe. The other half wouldn’t be able to wait to sneak off to the theater, warm with the prospect of a self-indulgent, tear-jerking, cathartic evening.
A young, working-class mother of two is diagnosed with cancer and has two months to live.
I can almost hear the cringers cringe. I can hear the Lifetime Channel devotees starting up their cars to see this movie which is produced by Pedro Almodovar and directed by his associate Isabel Coixet. First instincts for both of these groups will be proved totally wrong when they actually see the film. We are all way too accustomed to how Hollywood and television deal with subject matter like this: swelling orchestral music; meditative walks in fields of daisies holding hands with our soon-to-be-abandoned loved ones; the gnashing of teeth, the angry outbursts, the bald heads of chemotherapy.
The maudlin reconciliations with past enemies and the phony, sugary “enlightenment” that come just prior to our dirtnap are the staple scenes in films similar in plot to My Life Without Me. I can assure you, however, that you will not be subjected to any of these. What you will be subjected to is a quiet, thoughtful, effective examination of a life close to death, with all the confusion, anger, humor and, ultimately, the brave wisdom which befalls those who deal with the uninvited finality of their lives.
Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress with a gummy smile, hits every note perfectly as Ann, our doomed heroine. She lives behind her mother’s house in a trailer with her ne’er-do-well but sincerely nice husband and two preschool-age daughters. The mother is played by Deborah Harry, who captures the tired, burned-out, still-strong character with humor and depth.
When Ann finds out she will die, she goes to a local diner where she not only makes a “things to do before I die” list, but also takes the time to tell the waitress what a fucking awful idea it is to try to look like Cher. This little exchange is typical for this film — hard, poignant truths delicately interspersed with the realities of getting the kids off to school, making chicken for your husband, getting your hair done, and making someone else (besides the husband you’ve been with since you were 16) fall in love with you. Enter Mark Ruffalo, who does a wonderfully understated job as the transient surveyor who Ann selects as her lover. This isn’t as seedy as it may sound. It’s handled with a quiet grace, and it’s very easy to sympathize with these desperate characters.
My Life Without Me is a sad film without being schmaltzy, a philosophical meditation without being preachy, and a slice of life (and death) that never forces the emotions or undeservedly tugs at the heartstrings. With the exception of its somewhat gimmicky, It’s A Wonderful Life ending, the film never takes the easy way out, and we’re the wiser for it.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Twp.). Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].