“Ways to Live Forever” shows it’s possible to make an upbeat movie about a 12-year-old dying of leukemia if you focus on the kid and not the disease. Lively, entertaining and well made, pic is thankfully neither mawkish nor grueling, though its refusal to confront some of the harsher realities of its dramatic situation does leave it feeling somewhat bland. “Forever” deserves to find an aud beyond the fanbase of the bestseller on which it’s based, but much will depend on whether the marketing can emphasize the feel-good factor.
Pic wisely follows the structure of Sally Nicholls’ novel, and treats the chirpy, spiky-haired Sam (Robbie Kay) as a kind of narrator by having him keep a video diary. Sam reveals much about himself when, while making a list of important things about himself, the fact that he has leukemia merits only fourth place. Two other lists — “Things I Want to Do,” and “Questions Nobody Answers” (for example, “Why do children have to die?”) — give the pic its structure.
His parents, Amanda (Emilia Fox) and Daniel (Ben Chaplin), are doing their best, though Daniel is remote and withdrawn. Pic shuttles between the sometimes tense scenes of family life and sections in which Sam sets about fulfilling various dreams, including breaking a world record, riding in an airship and being a teenager.
Sam’s best friend, Felix (Alex Etel), is also afflicted with cancer, and his cousin Kaleigh (Ella Purnell) reps Sam’s romantic interest. As issues of mortality come to the fore, things darken considerably, and the final scenes turn into a satisfying tissue-fest.
Pic as a whole is as winning as its protag. Down-to-earth, fizzing with energy and never merely cute, Kay rarely fails to strike the right note as Sam, whose insights (“If you’re not ill, nobody cares about whether you ride a bike or not”) give the film much of its charm. As Amanda, Fox is given no emotional journey and feels stranded, but Chaplin, in a wonderfully controlled perf, comes into his own after Daniel finds Sam’s diary and decides to become his son’s friend for the rest of his short life.
Some scenes try to force the comedy, such as an overextended scene, featuring a Ouija board, that peters out into nothing. Largely shot under the gray skies of suburban England, the yarn has an earthily downbeat feel that complements the tone of straightforward sincerity. However, space is reserved for some nicely mounted, richly colored digital animation illustrating Sam’s imaginative flights of fancy.
The soundtrack is less successful when using orchestral strings, better when deploying plaintive acoustic ditties from the likes of Mindy Smith. Editing occasionally feels a little jerky.