There are not many harder moments in life to be told that you have a set time left on Earth with your loved ones, especially when you get such news at a young age. This is where writer/director Isabel Coixet takes us in My Life Without Me, an intimate drama that asks the question of what do you do in the days leading up to your death?
Ann (Sarah Polley) is a hard-working mother of two girls who support her family while her husband (Scott Speedman) remains perpetually unemployed. She copes with her demanding mother (Deborah Harry) and the fact that she has no relationship with her imprisoned father. Following a collapse, she visits the hospital and learns that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and only has two months to live. Deciding not to reveal this information to her family she draws up a list of things that she would like to do before her time comes to an end.
Admittedly not the most uplifting plot you will ever read. My Life Without Me could very easily take you down an overly dramatic and ultimately a predictable path. Yet, here instead of the fights, deathbed confessions and tears and laughs at the funeral we are presented with clarity. The realisation of what is coming and how to experience life at its fullest in that time.
Of course, we have some of the usual tropes that come with such a film that has someone draw up a bucket list. The silly checkpoints of completing all of life’s mistakes and tribulations that will not come her way naturally. But, where the film excels is when it pulls at the heartstrings. Ann has only ever been with her husband Don and doesn’t fully believe he loves her, she wants to have someone fall in love with her and to experience that excitement. Knowing that someone so young feels as if she has been locked down by her young family and past mistakes and needs these experiences to class herself as having a life lived is despairingly bleak.
Despite all of this however is Ann’s realisation that her family will not cope without her, she is just not a spoke in the wheel for the family, she is the engine, without her, what will happen to her children, her husband or her parents? She tries to make a way to take care of all of them, sowing the seeds for a new partner after she is gone for Lee is a prime example of how well rounded this character and story is. We would not see this in other films, we would have happenstances for characters meeting, and connecting after Ann has passed on.
Polley plays Ann pitch perfectly, a woman who wants to go out on her own terms and as mentioned has the clarity of mind to do so. Polley shows here why there was so much buzz about her in the early 2000s. You feel everything Ann does and it all feels ever so natural. Instead of going over the top with her performance and to try be loud, she plays it in a very subdued manner. As if Ann is not overly surprised this has happened for her. Nothing has gone how she planned it in her life, so why should she get that long life with a happy ending? Polley is careful and thoughtful throughout and it is one of her best performances.
As good as Polley is and as much as it is a one-person show, the supporting cast is exceptional, Scott Speedman’s Don is soft and charismatic and makes you believe how easy it was for Ann to fall for him when they were teenagers, but he hasn’t grown since that time. He hasn’t taken on the responsibility as he should have and Ann has to make do.
That is until Ann meets Lee (Mark Ruffalo) who in another life would have been the man she would have been within her adult years if she had not have gotten pregnant so young. While his character is partially underwritten Ruffalo makes the most of the material and is believable as someone who has fallen hopelessly for the mysterious woman who shares little. He has a great screen presence here and his chemistry with Polley helps drive the film when it has possibilities of teetering.
The question that lingers throughout though, is can we reason with a character who decides not to reveal her impending death to her family, even in her final days? Coixet and Polley have a very tough tightrope to walk here. It is verging on unforgivable to not allow her family a sense of closure. By trying to set everything in order and to create a future life for her family and have a truncated life she wanted, they are trying to have their cake and eat it here. Happily they just about get away with it as by focusing on how Ann just wants to have control of something for once in her life that she can try and dictate to, we fall to her reasoning and My Life Without Me allows us to forgive Ann for this.
My Life Without Me is a powerful story and personally a thought-provoking one. A film that allows its European senses to come into North American cinema in an exceptional way. This is truly a lost gem that deserves to be rediscovered.
Drama | USA, 2003 | 15 | Amazon Prime | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Isabel Coixet | Sarah Polley, Scott Speedman, Mark Ruffalo, Deborah Harry