My Life Without Me Review
23-year-old Ann (Sarah Polley) lives in a trailer with her often-unemployed husband Don (Scott Speedman) and their two young daughters, Penny and Patsy (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy). She works nights as a cleaner at a nearby university, and despite living dangerously near to the poverty line leads a fairly happy, if uneventful, life. One day, however, after doubling up in pain in the kitchen, a routine medical check reveals that she has advanced cancer in both ovaries. The disease has spread to her liver, and she is informed that she has only a few months to live. Rather than break down, Ann decides not to tell anyone about her illness. Stealing an idea or two from Homer Simpson, she pens a "to-do" list that includes recording messages for each of her daughters' birthdays until they are 18, getting a haircut, meeting her incarcerated father and sleeping with another man. With so little time to do so much, Ann quickly finds herself appreciating life even at its most trivial levels.
Independent Spanish/Canadian co-production My Life Without Me was a massive success on the film festival circuit, and the furore is not undeserved. While the events depicted in the film are sometimes overly convenient and often questionable in terms of logic, Spanish writer/director/camera operator Isabel Coixet uses her distinctive lateral thinking to deal with the themes in question in a way that are, I suspect, much truer to life than the usual Hollywood depictions. Rather than spend the whole film wallowing in the morbidity of the death angle, Coixet concentrates on life, specifically focusing on the enjoyment Ann manages to find in small things, and how the fact that she hasn't got long to live causes her to appreciate them more. The result, therefore, is that the film manages to be uplifting rather than morbid, avoiding the trappings that films of this kind can so easily fall into. Watch this film, and then watch the god-awful Stepmom, a perfect example of how not to do a film about dying. The film categorically avoids being sensational or movie-like. There are no "I don't want to die!" scenes, and indeed Ann's death and her family's reaction to it are left off-screen. The film instead makes its mark with scenes that mix emotion with humour. Although, at my tender age of 21, I have not had too many first-hand experiences of death, the film touched me because the reactions of the characters, which often seemed misplaced, struck me as how many people probably would react to the prospect of having only a short period of time to live.
The performances across the board are outstanding. Sarah Polley carries the difficult role of Ann and the film itself on her shoulders amply, which isn't really any great surprise. Although mainstream moviegoers probably know her best for her roles in Go and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, she has definitely had more experience and seems to be more at home in lower-budget, character-driven films such as this, which recalls her earlier appearances in Guinivere and The Sweet Hereafter. A left-leaning part-time political activist who takes on roles that have social significance rather than those that guarantee big bucks, she is one of the few people in this business that I have equal respect for as a person and as an actor. She knows exactly how much or how little to give to any situation, and the scene in which she is told that she has only a limited time to live demonstrates this amply. Rather than going into hysterics, her facial expression changes almost imperceptably, a single tear roles down her cheek, and she murmurs, "Wow, and there was me thinking I was pregnant." The actor who really surprised me, though, was Scott Speedman, who was thoroughly ineffective in Underworld but here gives a solid and credible portrayal to Don, the husband/father who isn't perfect, but not through lack of trying. Deborah Harry as Ann's sanctimonious but well-meaning mother, Maria De Medeiros as the hairdresser who thinks Ann should get braids, and Amanda Plummer as Ann's calorie-obsessed co-worker/friend, are all fun to watch and help give the film colour.
I do have some reservations about the film, however. Most significantly, I found the scenes featuring Ann's daughters somewhat grating. It's difficult to know who to blame for this, since good child actors are woefully rare, and indeed given the nature of the film it was surely neccessary to show how much Ann loved her children, but they came across as forced and at times cringe-worthy. (You can tell I'm never going to have kids.) Furthermore, while Sarah Polley's portrayal of Ann cannot be faulted, the fact that, despite being at death's door, her physical appearance and seemingly her health didn't change throughout the film struck me as a little odd. The role is certainly unglamorous, and Polley spends most of the film without any make-up on, but not once does she ever look particularly ill. Finally, although I consider it to be less of a problem than some other reviewers, Ann's decision to tell no-one about her condition, while brave, is also somewhat selfish. While the scene in which she records tape messages for her daughters' birthdays is touching, it left me with a nagging feeling that most children would probably prefer the chance to say goodbye to their mother personally rather than getting a recorded message at each birthday.
Nevertheless, I was impressed by My Life Without Me. To say I enjoyed it would probably be untrue, as it isn't really the sort of film that is meant to be enjoyed as such, but it is a powerful and somewhat touching portrait of the emotions felt by someone with a limited time left to live.
This 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, preserving the film's original aspect ratio, is quite strong, but is somewhat limited by a less than adequate bit rate. The source material is quite grainy, looking more like 16mm than the 35mm stock that was actually used, and without a sufficient bit rate, it all tends to get a little crushed. Nevertheless, strong contrast values shine through, and the image, while a little soft, is not unpleasant to look at.
Stereo and 5.1 tracks are included. I listened to both and came to the conclusion that there wasn't a whole lot of difference between them. Indeed, for the most part, the 5.1 track sounds like it could easily have been stereo. This is absolutely fine given the intimacy of the subject matter and style of the film. On a handful of occasions, the 5.1 track does throw in the odd rear-channel sound effect, but those instances were so few and far between that I often thought the sounds were coming from elsewhere in my house rather than from the soundtrack itself. The dialogue is sometimes a little too quiet, and I found myself adjusting the volume of my sound setup more than a couple of times.
English subtitles are provided for the film itself, but the only subtitled extras are those that take the form of interviews conducted in Spanish.
The packaging is nicely designed and laid out, featuring a rain motif. There is no insert, but chapter stops are listed on the inside cover.
The menu is straightforward and nicely designed, featuring a song playing in the background. The transitions are perhaps slightly overlong, but overall the effect is very stylish.
There are 12 chapter stops.
Behind the scenes - This 28-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary looks at various aspects of the production process and ideas behind the film, and features interviews from most of the major participants, including director Isabel Coixet, producer Esther Garcia, and the main actors. A fairly interesting featurette, although with perhaps a few too many lengthy clips from the film itself.
Cast and crew interviews and filmographies - Filmographies are provided for Isabel Coixet, Sarah Polley, Amanda Plummer, Scott Speedman, Leonor Watling, Mark Ruffalo and Deborah Harry. Interviews of varying length are also included for all but Harry. The longest is the 24-minute interview with Coixet, who talks about all aspects of the film, including the changes she made when compared to the book on which it is based (in the book, Ann tells everyone that she has cancer).
Q&A with Isabel Coixet - Taking place after a screening of the film at a London film festival, this 11-minute Q&A session doesn't really get into too much depth but is fairly interesting, as Coixet talks about why she decided to make the film, why she operated the camera herself, and why she cast Sarah Polley in the lead.
Trailers - English and Spanish trailers are included for the film.
Music video - A music video for an untitled song is also included, intercutting clips from the film with black and white shots of a depressed-looking guy (the singer, I assume).
Bonus trailers are also included for Last Party 2000, Spellbound, Amandla!, Valentin and Northfork.
Metrodome has given My Life Without Me a decent presentation for this DVD release. The audio-visual quality is of a reasonably high standard and the extras, while not particularly numerous, are mostly insightful and make worthwhile inclusions. The film won't be for everyone, and if the idea of watching someone preparing for their death for 100 minutes doesn't appeal to you, then you should probably give this a miss, but it is a quirky and at times genuinely touching look into the last few months of an imperfect but determined young woman's life, and as such, it gets my recommendation.