A small trailer somewhere in Canada. Inside is a young woman, old beyond her twenty-three years, along with her kind, but overly dreamy and frequently unemployed husband and their two small children. Every night, the woman, Ann (Sarah Polley), leaves the cramped trailer and heads to a local college where she works nights as a janitor, a place that reminds her of the life that’s passed her by. One day, after collapsing, Ann goes to see a kindly doctor who gently informs her that she’s infected with a lethal and cancerous tumor and that she only has a short time to live.
“My Life Without Me,” the North American writing and directing debut of Isabel Coixet, a disciple of the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, has a premise that everyone can sympathize with: A young woman, dying, uses the time she has left to try and fulfill some of her lifelong fantasies and leave some kind of legacy for her loved ones. This is, more or less, the same premise we’ve seen in films like 1981’s “Tribute,” where Jack Lemmon played a terminally ill Broadway press agent trying to repair a relationship with his teenage son before he dies, and 1993’s “My Life,” where Michael Keaton played a dying man who was determined to leave a taped document for his infant son who would be too young otherwise to have any memories of him. “My Life Without Me” combines those two stories, more or less, but what’s interesting is how this film avoids all of the stigmas of the made-for-TV deathbed drama. The film has a lot of humor and joy in it.
One of the big differences between “My Life Without Me” and those other films is the fact that Polley’s character, Ann, is not an “important” person like those other characters, but a struggling wife and mother who has never really lived her life anyway which makes the news of her impending death quite ironic. “My Life Without Me” adds another new spin on the formula by having Ann refuse to divulge her illness to anyone, not even her family, and even including the kindly doctor (If you were ever to hear news like this from a doctor, you’d want it to come from this doctor) into the rest of the film. Now that she’s free from having to work the horrible night job, Ann’s free to fulfill a list of things she wants to do before she dies which includes visiting her estranged father in prison, treating herself to a professional manicure, finding a suitable wife for her husband, Don (Scott Speedman), and making tapes for her children to watch and listen to after she’s gone. What will she say on the tapes? How does she deal with the fact that her children aren’t likely to grow up remembering much of anything, beyond flashes, about her?
Since “My Life Without Me” begins with the knowledge of Ann’s death, I suppose the material is inherently depressing on some level, but writer-director Isabel Coixet never falls into the trappings of the well-worn genre. The film is about Ann not wanting to burden those around her about her illness and her attempt to try and cram a lifetime of broken dreams into a few months which seems like both a great challenge and a lot of fun. The film continually reminds us that death is the greatest mystery of them all.
One of the things I don’t think the film needed was so many characters, especially since Polley’s character is anything but the icy diva that the actress has been playing in her recent films. One of the things on Ann’s list is to have sex with another man – a fantasy wish fulfillment since she does truly love Don. The man she sleeps with is a lonely drifter named Lee (Mark Ruffalo) who’s dealing with the agony of a bitter divorce that has sent him into a tailspin. Maybe he belongs in another film. A prison scene where Ann goes to visit her incarcerated father (Alfred Molina) seems a bit obligatory. I also think the film could’ve used one extra scene dealing with the real physical torture of Ann’s illness which would’ve been a realistic counterpoint to the courageous optimism with which Ann has chosen to live her last days. But the film belongs to Polley and it’s an excellent performance. Having seemingly devoted her recent career to rather disheveled art house experimental films – such as the awful “No Such Thing” and “Weight of Water” – following her triumphs in “Guinevere” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” she gives one of her best performances in this film. It goes without saying that the film would crash and burn if the main character, Ann, didn’t have our total sympathy.
Then, as I was watching this film, something hit me. I remembered reading that Polley’s own mother, a former casting director from Canada, also died of cancer when Polley was about ten. Fascinating. I wonder if Polley herself was able to make peace with her mother and say everything she wanted to say before her mother died?
I think the best thing about “My Life Without Me” is that we end up feeling that Ann was a real person who lived and walked this earth, not just a movie character who fades away. At the end, as with all people who die, we’re reminded of the places the character walked, the clothes they wore, the chair they sat in, and the words they spoke. And we miss them.
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