My Sister’s Keeper

There's crying and vomiting aplenty, and auds may be forgiven the urge to respond in kind.

Sara Fitzgerald - Cameron Diaz Anna Fitzgerald - Abigail Breslin Campbell Alexander - Alec Baldwin Brian Fitzgerald - Jason Patric Kate Fitzgerald - Sofia Vassilieva Aunt Kelly - Heather Wahlquist Judge De Salvo - Joan Cusack Taylor Ambrose - Thomas Dekker Jesse Fitzgerald - Evan Ellingson Dr. Chance - David Thornton

There’s crying and vomiting aplenty in “My Sister’s Keeper,” and audiences may be forgiven the urge to respond in kind. Unsubtle, uneven and undeniably effective, this take-no-prisoners cancer weepie poses a fascinating moral quandary — a girl fighting her parents for the right to control her body while her older sister wastes away from leukemia — as a mere pretext for a full-scale assault on the viewer’s tear ducts. To the extent that many will deem the assault highly successful, Warner’s “Keeper” could be a sleeper, especially as a femme-friendly alternative to the latest “Transformers.”

Adapted from Jodi Picoult’s 2004 bestseller, “My Sister’s Keeper” is the saga of the long-suffering Fitzgerald family, pivoting on a crucial moment in the lives of two sisters: teenage Kate, who was diagnosed with leukemia at an early age and has been in and out of hospitals ever since, and 11-year-old Anna, who was conceived in vitro as a perfect genetic match for Kate — a living repository of blood, bone marrow and other bodily resources.

So when Anna marches into a lawyer’s office and announces her decision to sue for “medical emancipation” — which would free her from her obligation to donate the kidney that could save Kate’s life — their parents feel understandably shocked and betrayed. Their dad, Brian (Jason Patric), takes the news better than mom Sara (Cameron Diaz), who is fiercely and overbearingly devoted to Kate’s welfare, often to the neglect of her husband, younger daughter and son Jesse (Evan Ellingson).

Writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-scribe Jeremy Leven retain Picoult’s technique of narrating the story from multiple points of view, interwoven with flashbacks that trace Kate’s declining health and its impact on the family at every stage. While the device feels arch and clunky in its attempt to accommodate the perspectives of five characters, giving short shrift to some (the script regards Jesse with scarcely more interest than Sara does), it does reinforce the idea of the family as a fragmented unit, whose members find themselves at odds in matters of life and death.

Cassavetes was arguably well prepped for this film, having directed one crowdpleasing tearjerker (“The Notebook”) and grappled with medical ethics, sort of, in “John Q.” Yet the lack of tonal discipline evident in his past work is also present here, as the story’s stew of family angst, terminal-illness melodrama and courtroom theatrics produces a dangerously unstable mixture of moods. Early scenes bog down in shrill bickering (mostly courtesy of Diaz, using Sara’s brittle edges as an excuse to crank up the volume), chased into temporary remission by upbeat moments of family bonding.

Yet Cassavetes also is capable of a softer touch, which he demonstrates in a poignant, extended flashback to Kate’s romance with a dreamy fellow patient (Thomas Dekker). As lovely images of the past insistently tug our attention away from the present, some of the drama’s more pertinent questions — what motivates Anna’s sudden self-interest? What’s it like to live with your parents when you’re suing them? — are casually glossed over. Too much scrutiny, it turns out, would spoil the climactic twist.

It’s that calculated sense of dramatic evasion that makes “My Sister’s Keeper” feel all too convenient as it short-circuits its own philosophical/scientific provocation and instead goes for the viewer’s jugular. To that end, Cassavetes falls back on a reliable combo of heart-tugging music (either mood-setting pop tunes or Aaron Zigman’s tastefully downbeat score) and repeated shots of a bald, feeble Kate beaming angelically through her tears. In the face of such an impeccably mounted emotional onslaught, what argument can there be?

That the film does come by some of its tears honestly is a testament to the actors involved, including Patric as the selfless, quietly resilient dad; Diaz, whose perf improves in direct relation to her character’s mood; Baldwin, offering dry comic relief as Anna’s attorney; and Joan Cusack, quietly wrenching as a judge who proves sympathetic to both parties. Special mention must also be made of Vassilieva, who endures the ravages of onscreen cancer (nosebleeds, deathly pale makeup, the aforementioned vomiting) like a champ, and who as a result easily steals the film from the plucky, always engaging Breslin.

Tech credits are pro but not too polished; there’s a rough texture to Caleb Deschanel’s lensing that suits the story’s bittersweet feel. Pic makes fine use of its Southern California locations, particularly during a beachside interlude.

Popular on Variety

My Sister's Keeper

Production: A Warner Bros. release of a New Line Cinema presentation of a Mark Johnson/Curmudgeon/Scott L. Goldman production. Produced by Johnson, Chuck Pacheco, Goldman. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Merideth Finn, Mark Kaufman, Diana Pokorny, Stephen Furst, Mendel Tropper. Co-producers, Hillary Sherman, Steven Posen. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Screenplay, Jeremy Leven, Cassavetes, based on the novel by Jodi Picoult.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Caleb Deschanel; editors, Alan Heim, Jim Flynn; music, Aaron Zigman; production designer, John Hutman; set designer, John Warnke; set decorator, Maggie Martin; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Steve Cantamessa; supervising sound editor, Kelly Cabral; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; stunt coordinator, Eddie Braun; assistant director, Jonathan McGarry; casting, Matthew Barry, Nancy Green-Keyes. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, June 18, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 108 MIN.

Cast: Sara Fitzgerald - Cameron Diaz Anna Fitzgerald - Abigail Breslin Campbell Alexander - Alec Baldwin Brian Fitzgerald - Jason Patric Kate Fitzgerald - Sofia Vassilieva Aunt Kelly - Heather Wahlquist Judge De Salvo - Joan Cusack Taylor Ambrose - Thomas Dekker Jesse Fitzgerald - Evan Ellingson Dr. Chance - David Thornton

More Scene

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]


    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content