My Life Without Me Movie Review

Focusing an entire dramatic film on death can be tricky. Death drives an enormous range of emotions, from fear to sadness, to curiosity; yet, most movies treat death with overwrought nobility, excessive weepiness, or yikes, both (see: Pay It Forward). Spanish director Isabel Coixet's first English-language feature suffers from the first sin, treating a young women's impending death with a stagy aloofness that cheats the film of more complex emotions.

The unfortunate woman is 24-year-old Ann (the always appealing Sarah Polley), a struggling wife and mother who learns that a raging cancer will kill her in just a few months. Ann's initial response is to hide the news from her mother (Deborah Harry); very matter-of-factly, she continues to follow that M.O. by telling no one, including her husband Don (Scott Speedman, grinning way too much).

Coixet, who adapted the screenplay from a short story, pulls out all the stops to have us sympathize with young Ann. She's married to the only boy she's ever been with. They have two beautiful girls and live in a tiny (really tiny) trailer in her mom's backyard. Ann is on the nighttime cleaning crew at the local university. Ann's oft-unemployed husband looks toward his new job with weak hopefulness. Her girlhood dreams are gone. The weather's really cold. She and Don even met at the last-ever Nirvana show - please, spare me the tragic synchronicity.

When you have that kind of life, and you're dying, and you have the sweet, emotive puppy dog eyes of Sarah Polley, you can't help but have an audience love you. But, by having Ann keep her secret, Coixet goes further, making her something of a martyr. When Ann sits in an all-night diner, scribbling a list of things she wants to do before she dies, most of her wishes are sickeningly plain. Have a picnic at the beach. Get fake fingernails. It's as if the character were too naïve to fantasize beyond a trip to the beauty salon. It's a humility that many viewers may find understated and humble. Others, myself included, find it insulting to the character and irritating to the audience.

The one fall from grace that Coixet allows is an affair with Lee (Mark Ruffalo), a local drifter and town cliché. He's the lonesome, jilted lover who has no furniture and loves books. Not only does Coixet create a blueprint romantic, she treats him with cinematic tricks that scream "indie." When Lee spends an entire evening staring at Ann while she naps at a Laundromat (oh, how cutely humble), Coixet passes time with a series of fade-outs... and then with a collection of slow dissolves. It's art without purpose - useless in telling the story or creating a mood.

All that being said, it is still a thrill to watch Sarah Polley act. Her face is a haunting, beautiful study in pain and resolution, and her ability to breathe life into Coixet's somewhat clunky scenarios is an achievement. Unfortunately, she's the only actor who can dig out from under the obvious style of the simple life. Harry, who certainly knows how to be tough, sounds stilted; Ruffalo, although daring, plays one note; and, Alfred Molina, one of today's great character actors, is wasted.

One of the executive producers behind My Life Without Me is the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. His recent films, like the exceptional All About My Mother and Talk To Her, take average people, mix them with colorful characters, and dip the whole shebang in a whirlwind of poetry, artistry, and tragedy. Isabel Coixet should have considered such a potent combination when attempting such heavy-duty stuff.

Reviewed at the 2003 Boston Film Festival.

The audience, without us.


My Life Without Me Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 2003


More Sarah Polley

Saving Mr Banks' Emma Thompson Hits The 2014 National Board Of Review Awards - Part 3

'Saving Mr Banks' star Emma Thompson was snapped by paparazzi as she walked the black carpet at the 2014 National Board Of Review Awards Gala...

10 Best Films of 2013

10. Behind The Candelabra - Sadly consigned to TV in America, this Liberace biopic's lavish production design deserves to be projected on the biggest screen...

Alice Munro Wins The Nobel Prize For Literature

Alice Munro has walked away with the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature following this week's award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. The 82-year-old short story writer,...

Stories We Tell Movie Review

With Away From Her and Take This Waltz, actress-turned-filmmaker Polley has proved herself as an unusually gifted director, but this inventive, moving documentary reveals even...


A Week In Movies: Star Wars Episode VII Shapes Up, Harrison Ford Joins Anchorman: The Legend Continues And Oz The Great And Powerful Hits Theatres

The movie casting rumour mill has gone into overdrive this week when Carrie Fisher seemed to confirm that she will indeed be back for Star...

Stories We Tell Trailer: Filmmaker Sarah Polley Hunts For Her Real Father

Stories We Tell is certainly a unique movie - that much we know from the trailer. The 2012 documentary that premiered at the 69th Venice...

Stories We Tell Trailer

Sarah Polley is an actress and film director from a family full of secrets. With her vibrant mother actress Diane Polley long deceased, Sarah wants...

Take This Waltz Movie Review

After the remarkable Away From Her, actress-turned-filmmaker Polley is back with another bracingly observant drama, this time exploring the point where relationships cease to be...