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'My Life Without Me'

Keywords: High Falls Film Festival

'My Life Without Me'

Isabel Coixet, Spain/Canada, 106 minutes

Little Theatre 2-5, 4 p.m., Saturday, November 8

Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me, which she adapted from Nanci Kincaid's short story Pretending the Bed is a Raft, is a lot like I Am Sam in that both films feature a ridiculously hokey premise carefully and thoughtfully made into shockingly compelling cinema. Reactions will probably be quite similar as well, with some viewers unable to look past the maudlin subject matter that seems better suited for a Lifetime Network movie-of-the-week than one of a handful of highlights from 2003's Toronto International Film Festival.

            My Life stars a dark-haired Sarah Polley as Ann, a 23-year-old who seems surprisingly happy despite having a life many would consider sad, or at least about as far from glamorous as you might be able to get. She has two daughters, a perpetually unemployed husband, and a job with the third-shift janitorial crew at the local university picking up the garbage created by people of a similar age but with much brighter futures. Ann's immediate family is very close, though, both literally and figuratively, as her husband Don (Scott Speedman) and their two kids (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy) live in a cramped trailer in her mother's backyard just outside Vancouver.

            When Don announces he's landed a semi-long-term gig installing pools, Ann takes a moment to reflect and says, "I've got a good feeling about this." And anyone who heard Sharon say the same thing at the beginning of the second season of The Osbournes knows making such a statement is guaranteed to turn your life upside-down. Before you know it, Ann is doubled over in pain and is told by a nervous hospital doctor (Julian Richings) that she has only a couple of months to live, courtesy of inoperable cancer spreading faster than Internet gossip about a third Star Wars trilogy.

            I think a lot of people might have a hard time accepting Ann's reaction to the diagnosis, but that's because they're programmed to think films about people dying have to be button-pushers like Life as a House, Sweet November, or Stepmom --- the sort of mawkish movies that take the easy way out by sticking to a boring formula which seems intent on generating a set amount of tears at predetermined moments. The ones with big stars wearing lots of gray makeup hungrily leaping at the chance to fake a dignified yet agonizing death while secretly dreaming of an Oscar. The ones I'm so tired of seeing.

            You won't get any of that in the Pedro Almodóvar-produced My Life because Ann decides not to tell anyone about her illness, which eliminates virtually all self-pity from the film. Instead, Ann calmly makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies. Her goals are very down to earth (unlike, say, Homer Simpson's similar attempt) and don't include things like "Backpack through Europe" or "Sleep with the singer from matchbox twenty." Some are fiercely maternal (she wants to make birthday recordings for little Penny and Patsy for every year until they turn 18), while others seek closure (she wants to reconcile with her jailed father, played by Alfred Molina). Some are incredibly generous (she wants to find a new wife for Don), while others are a bit selfish (she wants to make another man fall in love with her, because Don is the only guy she's ever kissed).

            There are a couple of clunky moments (the worst involve Maria de Medeiros and Milli Vanilli), but Coixet's first English-language film is blessed by Polley's best performance to date and the recurring use of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." There is amazing chemistry between Polley and Speedman (they went to high school together in real life), as well as both actors and their on-screen children. Scenes between Polley and Mark Ruffalo (he plays Ann's romantic conquest) aren't quite are powerful, though they're better than most films, and they also happen to feature the best kiss and supermarket dance sequence since Punch Drunk Love.