Playing a fortysomething patrician woman afflicted with ALS, Hilary Swank gives a sensitive, nuanced illustration of the disease’s horrible physical toll in George C. Wolfe’s “You’re Not You.” Unfortunately, the film calls on her to play a disease more often than a character, and this well-intentioned weepie never quite rises far enough above its movie-of-the week architecture to hit all its intended emotional pressure points. There are still some genuinely affecting individual scenes and keen observations to be found, however, and Swank’s performance alongside Emmy Rossum should help draw moderate yet appreciative attention to the film on VOD.
While the film’s last two acts begin to deepen its characters in generally satisfying ways, “You’re Not You” throws down its initial gauntlet with an off-putting lack of subtlety. An ominous prologue introduces upper-crust Houston couple Kate (Swank) and Evan (Josh Duhamel) as they host a cocktail party in their impressive, antiseptic modernist home. All goes well until Kate, a former concert pianist, takes to the keys and finds her right hand shaking uncontrollably. Flash forward a year and a half, and Kate’s disease has advanced rapidly, necessitating around-the-clock care. After firing a nurse because “she made me feel like a patient,” Kate tries going in the opposite direction, auditioning an unemployed college student with no relevant experience named Bec (Rossum).
Bec arrives late to her interview, massively hung over after some blackout sex with a barroom rando, guzzling mouthwash as she stomps to her beaten-up pickup. Dressed like an extra from “Singles,” she spends her first few hours on the job getting caught smoking on her new employers’ doorstep, making horrible comments about Kate’s impending death, proving herself incapable of operating a cutting board or a blender, and laughing cruelly after dropping her incapacitated charge into the toilet.
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More than a simple unlikely caregiver, Bec is depicted as a barely functional borderline sociopath in the film’s early going, a miscalculation that causes the two women’s subsequent relationship (and Bec’s continued employment) to feel narratively proscribed rather than earned. As it is, the pic generally hews to the overall arc of 2011’s French smash “The Intouchables,” with Bec helping Kate let loose and give voice to her simmering frustrations (especially those regarding her husband, who has initiated an affair with a co-worker), and Kate teaching Bec a degree of self-respect and responsibility.
Nonetheless, the film does improve substantially as it goes on, with Bec settling down into a more believable character, and the screenplay’s more formulaic paces leaving room to raise some tough, honest questions about living with disease. Without denying Kate her moment of Terry McMillan-esque emancipation from her wayward husband, the pic gradually allows him to explain himself, accounting for the strain that terminal illness exerts on sufferers’ spouses.
Swank excels in subtly underplaying the pileup of indignities that Lou Gehrig’s disease inflicts on its victims, her voice growing incrementally less decipherable as her condition worsens. Though she has some moderately cliched scenes of cinematic suffering, it’s her look of resignation as she struggles to turn the pages of a magazine, or her quiet discomfort as strangers attempt to shake hands, that really convey the brutality of the disease.
The acting is fine all around, though the quality of the characters can vary wildly. Loretta Devine and Ernie Hudson are delightful as a couple of fellow patients, and Frances Fisher brings some interesting shadings to her brief role as Kate’s blue-blooded mother. Marcia Gay Harden, however, is pure icy malevolence as Bec’s disapproving mom, and Jason Ritter hits some unintentionally stalkerish notes as a supposedly nice guy vying for Bec’s affections.
Production design from Aaron Osbourne is eye-catching throughout, and Los Angeles locations stand in for Texas better than one might expect.