Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me is successfully poetic and heartbreaking. Unfortunately, it is also awkward, sugarcoated and simply not believable in its representation of a dying young mother’s last ambitions.
The film tells the story of Ann (Sarah Polley), a 23-year-old trailer-park mother of two who is told that she has less than three months to live. For the sake of her family, she decides to keep this detail a secret so as to spare them from associating their last memories of her to hospitals. Instead she spends her last few weeks trying to fulfill ambitions for herself and for the future of her family by crossing off items from her “to do before I die” list.
Among her dying projects are: to record annual birthday messages for her daughters, to speak her mind, to make someone fall in love with her and to make love to other men. As she fulfills these ambitions, she begins to discover a new passion and love of life.
Remarkably, Ann manages to defy modern psychology and skip the classic stages of acceptance of death, continuing to live as though nothing has changed. She is careful to conceal the truth from her innocent daughters, her loving husband Don (Scott Speedman), her depressed mother (Deborah Harry, better known as Blondie) and other colourful characters in her life, claiming that any sign of recent fatigue or weakness is due to a doctor’s diagnosis of anemia.
Polley’s performance in the film is disappointing, considering the overwhelming talent she has manifested in a number of productions including The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Though she draws the viewers to empathy, she fails to truly convince them that her character is genuine. When told of her approaching death, she expresses her shock with a quivering lip and a tear, and quickly brushes over the emotion by asking about candy. Her love affair with Lee (Mark Ruffalo) is similarly unconvincing in that she seems to dutifully repeat meaningless lines.
The dialogue in the film weaves back and forth from mundane simplicity to contrived symbolism. Ann’s voice-over monologues, as well as certain symbols such as Don and Ann’s first encounter at Nirvana’s last concert, are often clichEd allusions to deeper significance.
There is profound and rather beautiful dynamic between characters. For example, Ann and Lee’s desperate and forbidden love, which at times is unfortunately swept over with simple chitchat.
The screenplay itself also grazes the surface of the beauty and complexity of this emotionally rich story. As though trying to mask relatively banal scenes, Coixet sporadically plays with creative cinematic styles such as handwriting on frames (X la Sofia Coppola in The Virgin Suicides) or a romantic yet awkward supermarket waltz.
The supporting cast includes Amanda Plummer as Ann’s diet-obsessed friend Laurie, Leonor Watling as the neighbour, and Maria de Medeiros as Ann’s Milli Vanilli-loving hairdresser. Though there were no Oscar-worthy performances, the secondary characters are a key element in the relative success of the film.
Though it often lacks credibility and may not provoke intense reflection, My Life Without Me still manages to capture and break your heart.