It may be clichéd to use the phrase, “if you look ‘blank’ up in the dictionary, you will see a photo of ‘blank’”, but sometimes it is appropriate. Sarah Polley, for instance, epitomizes the words underrated and underused. I know she has evolved her state in the film industry by becoming an auteur behind the camera of late, but it truly is a joy to go back and watch her early work in front of it. Finally catching The Sweet Hereafter a short time ago really opened my eyes to her ability to be realistic no matter what is asked of her, at any age. But it is in viewing My Life Without Me that solidifies her skill. She is absolutely mesmerizing as Ann, a young mother of two, living in a trailer with her husband located in the backyard of her mother’s house. Recently told she has two months to live before a fast spreading cancer takes control, we experience the true meaning of life and love and what really matters. All the “palpitations, and the nerves … the pain, the happiness, and the fear,” as Mark Ruffalo’s Lee relays to explain his love, is on screen for us to see. His character may only see 10% of her and know they could spend the rest of their life together, but we see 110% of her—all the complications, the sorrow, and the hope, preparing a future for those she loves once she is gone.
Based on a short story by Nanci Kincaid, writer/director Isabel Coixet has put together a powerhouse of tone, mood, and performance. Every aspect of the whole is top-notch, absorbing you into the emotions of the story while the plot carries us through. It isn’t as much about seeing Ann’s activities as she meets her demise as much as see the lasting memories and visions she will hold with her at the end. She has awoken from the dream that was her life to finally be alive, yet only have two months to do anything about it. The first thing she does is make sure not to tell anyone what is happening, giving them all a final gift of having her with them instead of daily hospital visits and the pain of watching her waste away. After coming to grips with that fact, she continues to make a list of things to do before she dies. Touching on the obvious like tell her daughters she loves them multiple times a day or smoke and drink as much as she can, (having never done either in a life shadowed by her jailed father who’d have a glass of bourbon for breakfast), the rest of the list includes some rather unorthodox wishes. One being the desire to kiss and sleep with other men—having married her husband at 17 with the birth of their first child—and finding a new wife for her Don, one that the girls will be able to love too.
Their family is one that has had hardship after hardship befall them, yet strength has always propped them up. Ann’s mother, played magnificently by Deborah Harry, never had any of her dreams come true, seeing her husband go to jail and need to raise her daughter and sustain a life for them at the detriment of her own social activities; Ann’s husband Don, a surprisingly real and effective turn from Scott Speedman, has never wavered in his love for her, nor his desire to be a better man and have the ability to support them despite bad luck; and her children, two years apart, deal with the sibling issues of youth and a lifestyle bordering on squalor, where a dinner of McDonald’s fries and milkshakes becomes a welcome treat. The one thing they have going for them is their familial bond; the capability of doing whatever is in their power to keep going. It might not always show, it might look as though regret and spite seeps in at moments, but at the end of the day, they all know they can and will be able to count on one another.
Polley’s portrayal of Ann resonates on a level so that any viewer can relate to her pain. Attempting to cope with her own mortality, without the help of loved ones in order to spare them a prolonged period of grief for a powerful revelation when it occurs, you almost forgive her for her transgressions. We know her love for her husband, so when we see her with Ruffalo’s Lee, a man hurt and depressed after being left by his girlfriend/wife, it becomes understandable. She is filling a void in his life while he does the same for her. He isn’t a replacement for a man she has stopped loving, he is an experience she has never had, a part of life that didn’t seem important when there were still decades to come. They touch each other on a plain of pure emotion, helping deal with the loss both are facing as well as the hope that things will turn out right in the future. Ruffalo’s depressed and shy Lee is just as effective in showing so much with so little, these characters are completely fleshed out and whole through body language, facial expressions, and line delivery. If you want an acting clinic on stripping down a performance to its raw core, look no further on both counts.
Everyone is to be commended, though, no matter the duration of screentime. Amanda Plummer embodies her diet obsessed friend to perfection; the eccentric hairdresser portrayed by Maria de Medeiros is effective in her role; Julian Richings doctor is phenomenal in portraying the difficulty his job entails as well as the heart he needs to keep; and even Deanne Henry’s Cher-wannabe waitress is given her due to be three-dimensional. Leonor Watling, the new neighbor that takes a liking to the children, is allowed a personal monologue of her motivations that will touch even the blackest heart and an uncredited Alfred Molina is even allowed to subtly play a huge role in the film despite only a ten minute exchange with Polley. It is the acting that succeeds in telling the tale because Coixet had cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu go in close and film every tear, every smile, and every emotion. He lets the camera drop or raise to linger and focus on things like holding hands while cropping off mouths or faces, unafraid to lead our eye to what matters rather than what is happening. With whimsical sequences of dancing at the supermarket, or slomotion pans of characters just existing in this world, everything onscreen becomes personal, stripping away the lies by utilizing artifice to focus on the performances.
No character is looked upon as less than another—every single one of them is shown with a glimpse into their future after the one soul bonding them together has gone. But it is the beautiful sequence of Ann looking through her plastic bead barrier—dividing her bed from the dining room table—at the world she hopes she will be leaving behind that sticks with me. It’s the smiles caught between blurred glares of light, and the eyes of her girls full of joy that comfort her to accept what is to come. “You pray that this is your life without you” … you dream that when you are gone, those you leave behind will survive and succeed. You wish for happiness in the ones you love despite your own pain, because seeing them alive with joy is what love truly is.