There’ll be plenty of demand for tissues by audiences who see this unapologetic weepie about a lovely young wife and mother who discovers she has a short time to live. With a glowing performance by Sarah Polley as the doomed woman, this Spanish-Canadian co-prod, filmed in English, is surprisingly adept at avoiding the worst cliches and most manipulative elements inherent in such a story. Result could well be an arthouse sleeper in the coming months in many territories.
Writer-director (and veteran camera operator) Isabel Coixet, who previously impressed with “Things I Never Told You” (1995) establishes at the outset a premise many will resist. But the Spanish auteur avoids the most maudlin elements of the story, turning it into a genuinely moving and even inspirational yarn.
Polley plays the 24-year-old Ann, the mother of two delightful girls. She lives in a trailer located in the backyard of her mother’s suburban Vancouver house with her devoted young husband, Don (Scott Speedman), whom she met when she was barely 17. Don has recently landed a job building swimming pools; usually, though, it’s Ann who keeps the young family functioning thanks to the work she does as night-shift cleaner at a university.
Ann’s aging mother (Deborah Harry) is bitter and lonely. Her husband (an unbilled cameo by Alfred Molina) has been serving a prison sentence for 10 years for an unspecified crime, and the woman is mad at the world. She spends her spare time watching old Joan Crawford movies on television, and isn’t much comfort to Ann.
And, suddenly, Ann need all the love and comfort she can get when she is told, by a shy and awkward doctor (Julian Richings) that she is so riddled with cancer she has only two or three months to live. Deciding to withhold the terrible news from everyone, she prepares a list of things to do before her death, among them: assure her children she loves them; go to see her father; find herself a lover (Don has apparently been the only man in her life); find Don a new prospective wife; and record birthday greetings for both her girls, one per year until they are 18 — among other vows.
Telling Don she’s suffering from anemia and popping pain-killers, she battles on at work to the concern of her diet-conscious friend (Amanda Plummer in a nothing supporting role). She makes the recordings for her girls (in a sequence which will bring out the handkerchiefs). She finds a compliant lover in the attractive, bruised, moody Lee (Mark Ruffalo), who duly falls in love with her. She goes to see her dad and achieves a kind of rapprochement. And when a charming young woman, also called Ann, played by Leonor Watling (from exec producer Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Me”) moves in next door, she sizes her up as a possible future partner for Don.
None of this should, in theory, work as well as it does. Coixet’s screenplay is packed with incidents and situations that, in lesser hands, could have been impossibly sentimental. But, thankfully, the delicate handling and the beautiful central performance ensure the film’s success beyond expectations. The exceptional Polley gets strong support from Speedman, as her loving husband, Ruffalo as her gloomy but increasingly ardent lover, Watling as the neighbor with a tragedy in her own past, and, especially, Harry as Ann’s worn-out and frustrated mother.
Vancouver backdrops downplay the beauty of the city, and Jean-Claude Larrieu’s photography is functional, but pic’s low-budget look and technical shortcomings don’t detract from the honesty of the central performance and the genuinely moving arc of this vulnerable young woman’s journey toward death.