On the cinema screen, tales of hardship invariably have a happy ending, with bright futures awaiting survivors of bleak and brutal experiences. However, occasionally a film recounts less hopeful strands of reality, where uncertainty reigns and bad things happen to good people without explanation. In Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, the latter rather than the former is the case, as a brief, hard life approaches a premature conclusion. Accordingly, the writer / director’s adaptation of Nanci Kincaid’s book “Pretending the Bed is a Raft” contemplates the harsh truths that emanate from an early demise, made all the more so by the knowledge of impending doom.
Twenty-three year old Ann (Sarah Polley, Go) inhabits an existence few would dream of, with two children (The Santa Clause 2’s Kenya Jo Kennedy and They’s Jessica Amlee) stemming from successive teen pregnancies to the only man she’s ever kissed. Struggling to get by, she works as a cleaner by night, and her husband Don (Scott Speedman, Dark Blue) as a pool contractor by day, relying upon stolen moments of intimacy as solace for all that they’ve missed. Yet, the fledgling family remain content despite their imperfect circumstances, fuelled by camaraderie and affection. Alas, Ann’s terminal illness threatens to shatter their idyll, with the outcome so devastating she decides to keep it secret.
Only her doctor (Julian Richings, The Claim) is aware of her condition, as Ann tells Don, her mother (Deborah Harry, Cop Land), and her colleague Laurie (Amanda Plummer, Ken Park) that her dizzy spells and lack of appetite are caused by anaemia. Instead of dwelling upon the inevitable, she determines to make the most her last days and weeks, fulfilling desires from the profound to the trivial. An attempted makeover, a series of recorded birthday messages to her daughters, and finally speaking her mind are at the start of her list. Other tasks prove more difficult to achieve, including reconnecting with her incarcerated father (Alfred Molina, Magnolia), assessing the step-mother potential of her friendly new neighbour (Leonor Watling, Talk to Her), and embarking upon a furtive affair with a handsome stranger (Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me).
Splicing dreamlike reflections of Ann’s mental state into stark yet sweet slices of her life, My Life Without Me is sorrowful without resorting to sentiment. Instead, it attempts to infuse legitimacy and elegance into the affecting premise, ensuring the film becomes more than just a heartstring-pulling, sickness-of-the-week weepie. The poetic presentation of the melancholy but never melodramatic offering assists in this regard, with impressionistic images creatively candid, and soft, swirling sound sustaining the underlying emotion. However, it is the feature’s thematic handling of the disconnect between the living and the dying that proves most pertinent and powerful, as the slightest details – Pulp Fiction’s Maria de Medeiros as a Milli Vanilli-obsessed hairdresser, for example – mirror the void between authenticity and artifice.
Performances, too, enliven the admirable, ambitious effort, with Polley particularly poignant. Imbuing her tragic heroine with warmth, depth and maturity that transcends her young years and heartbreaking end, her refined yet resonant portrayal lingers long after the film’s credits. Indeed, it is easy to understand Polley‘s Genie Award win for best actress, as well as her corresponding Goya Award nomination, with her honest, humanistic turn the strongest element of a feature filled with highlights. Through her presence, My Life Without Me emphasizes both the irrelevance and the significance of the minutiae of everyday occurrences as our expiry date approaches, in a moving meditation on the impact that death has on life.