My Life Without Me
September 26th, 2003
Think about this for a few moments. What would you do with your life if you discovered you only had two to three months to live? For every person, there would be a different set of answers, although chances are the majority of us would have some overlapping responses. What one young Canadian wife and mother would do is the subject of Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s first English-language film, “My Life Without Me,” a maddening exercise which claims we should life our lives with a passion we never had before, then presents us with the story of a woman who does very few of the things she tells herself she wants to do before she goes.
Despite being in her early twenties, Anne (Sarah Polley) has been married for several years with two young daughters. Life for Anne has little luxuries. She works nights as part of the cleaning crew of a local college, picking her mother (Debbie Harry) up from her job on the way home, getting her children ready for school every morning and dealing with her sweet but terminally unemployed husband Don (Scott Speedman) before getting a few hours sleep during the day and starting the cycle all over again. Not that Anne’s life has ever been much of a picnic. Her father was sent to prison in her pre-teens years, and she is trying to bring her family up in a trailer in her mother’s backyard. So when Anne discovers during a check-up after a series of fainting spells that she has inoperable cancer and only a few months to live, she doesn’t lose her composure. Instead, Anne heads off to a local diner, where she makes a short list of the things she would like to do before she goes, from change her hair and go on a trip with her family, to find a new wife and mother for her family and know what it is like to spend an evening in the company of someone else besides her husband. Not wanting her daughters to be exposed to her condition, Anne decides to explain to her family and friends her spells are a case of anemia. And not wanting to be stuck in the hospital the rest of her life, Anne is able to talk her doctor into allowing her to come in once a week for some counseling in place of all those nasty drugs and tests.
Anne does do some of the things on her list. She goes to get a new hair style, although she balks at the dreadlocked hair extensions of the Milli Vanilli-worshipping owner of the local salon, creates a series of life lessons on tape for her daughters to play on each of their birthdays as they grow up, and befriends the pretty young nurse who conveniently has moved in just next door. But mostly, Anne spends much of her time in the comforting arms of Lee (Mark Ruffalo), a hunky sensitive local she meets at the Laundromat.
What is most infuriating about this film is how the audience is expected to see Anne’s selfishness as some kind of personal heroism. How we’re supposed to forgive her continual adulterous ways because her life hasn’t been that great. It’s not that her husband is mean or abusive to Anne, just a sweet guy who was caught in a bad economy for a while who is trying to make things better for himself and his family. And it’s not that Lee is some kind of rich patron who is going to save her life, just some sensitive guy in a barely furnished house who is always available for Anne no matter what time of day or night.
It’s not that the film is necessarily a bad film. Director Coixet is able to keep the rhythmic flow moving at a good pace, and she is able to coax very good performances from her troupe. The cinematography is striking and the music, based on and around the Beach Boys hit “God Only Knows,” adds a proper balance between the melancholy and the serene. But it’s hard to give a passing grade to a film which centers on a character whose every move is exasperating. Step onto the other side of the question, and ask yourself how you would feel if you discovered your significant other was dying and decided not to tell you? That your mother would rather spend her remaining days in the throes of passion with some stranger than be with you? For someone who continually keeps talking about how important her family is to her, Anne sure has a unique way of showing how much she cares.
In the end, I give “My Life Without Me” a B for effort and a C- for execution.
My rating: C-