'My Life': No Time for Tears

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2003

The prospect of being hanged, Samuel Johnson said, concentrates the mind wonderfully. So, too, with terminal cancer, as a 23-year-old mother of two discovers in the exquisitely crafted, brutally unsentimental film "My Life Without Me."

If you think the story of a young woman who learns she has only a few months to live must be weepy and unbearably maudlin, this movie has some surprises to offer. It is a universe away from "Terms of Endearment." Though the ending is inevitable, the journey toward it doesn't take you where you think it will go. And while the film is emphatically moving, you may be startled to find just how you are moved, and why.

The story is set in a chilly gray corner of British Columbia, where the young woman we know only as Ann lives in a trailer with her husband, Don, and adorable little girls. She works nights as a janitor at the local university; he's a laid-off factory worker looking for his next job. Still, they have managed to carve out a warm, contented niche for themselves. Their opportunities may be as narrow as the dimensions of their single-wide, but life isn't all that bad, either.

Until Ann receives a prognosis so wretchedly unjust that even her doctor can hardly utter it.

Ann responds with resolve. She isn't so stoical that she doesn't allow herself some measure of self-pity, but ultimately she decides to live her final days on her own terms -- and that means making some drastic, morally unsettling changes. Where once she had simply drifted along, too busy and young for much self-awareness or reflection, suddenly life becomes startlingly clear.

The steps she decides to take elicit conflicting emotions, creating a sense of almost intolerable ambiguity for the viewer. Ann apparently suffers no such distress as she checks off the items on her "Things to Do Before I Die" list. But what are we to think when her bravery in sparing her family and maintaining normalcy is matched by acts of aggressive self-indulgence?

Bearing witness as Ann tries to cram her unfulfilled dreams into a collapsing existence, the viewer ping-pongs between sympathy and frustration. Yet, in a testament to the film's fine construction, we are steadily won over to Ann's point of view.

What makes this film work is the acute restraint with which writer-director Isabel Coixet tells it. There is no lapse into melodrama, and blessedly few tears. You'll find plenty of sweet moments and bits of ironic humor, but much is told with silence. Ann's world is shown with rough realism, and no religious consolation is offered. "Dream up a Heaven for me," she urges her husband in a taped message, though it is clear to her that cold, empty obliteration is all that awaits.

Much of the film's delicate power has been drawn by Coixet from a compelling cast. Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter") is a fragile beauty with the kind of open, broad face that easily telegraphs the twisted-up feelings her character doesn't dare speak. Polley's is a difficult task -- to convey an internal awakening, Ann's process of becoming more alive even as she is dying. Polley does this with astonishing sensitivity, becoming outwardly weaker and softer as her will grows stronger.

As the husband, Scott Speedman radiates a good-hearted decency that contrasts with Ann's restiveness. There's poignancy in his dimples; like Ann, Don is much too young and fresh-faced to be dealing with death at such close range.

With her killer cheekbones and cat's eyes, veteran rocker Deborah Harry is a touch too glamorous to be believable as Ann's embittered mother, but she conveys just the right tone of bone-deep disappointment and sourness.

"My Life Without Me" is in essence a kind of fairy tale, a story of good people rising above bad things and becoming healed, albeit in an unexpected, upside-down way. The main characters are so perfectly imperfectly good, in fact, that they almost become archetypal, reminding us how seldom we think to search for heroes in trailer parks and laundromats.

But "My Life Without Me" is not a gentle film. Insistent and unforgettable, it wounds on the inside, and the scars feel fresh for some time.

My Life Without Me (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual material and profanity.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company