"My Life Without Me" is a terminal illness feature, which likely will dismay potential viewers who believe they're headed for a weeper. "My Life Without Me" does have its issues, but its strength is that it proceeds largely without Big Emotional Moments and excessive sentimentality. While it has some considerable flaws, its approach to a film like this is different from most in the genre.
"My Life Without Me" stars Sarah Polley as Ann, a 23-year-old who lives in a trailer with her husband (Scott Speedman, in a thankless role that simply requires lots of grinning) and two daughters. She works as a janitor at the local university, he's often unemployed. One morning, she collapses in pain in her kitchen, and is taken to the local hospital by her mother. The physician informs her that her illness is terminal, and that she only has two months to live, maybe three.
Getting out of the house and to a local diner, she starts taking down a list of things to do before she passes away. Although Ann's decision to not tell her family about her illness doesn't exactly create a sympathetic character, her reasoning is that she'll spare her family the experience of sitting through waiting rooms while she suffers. She leaves the house one night to go to the local diner to collect her thoughts, writing down a list of things to do before she passes away.
Aside from finding her husband a replacement, one of the things include sleeping with another man than her husband, to see what the experience is like. Shortly after, she runs into Lee (Mark Ruffalo), the town drifter whose ex-gf apparently took all of his furniture. Of course, she doesn't tell him about her illness either, even after it's apparent he's fallen in love with her. It's not as if her current marriage is going poorly, either - Ann and her husband are loving, caring and seem like a happy couple. It's just that she's only been with him and, given that, she reasons that she should be allowed to be with someone else. You know, instead of spending the time with her loving family.
There's a few things that the film has going for it - most notably, Polley. The Canadian actress has a quiet, soft presence, yet her words and looks somehow have greater impact than one might think. It's a good performance, and there's a few subtly powerful scenes, such as when we watch her take in the news in an early scene. Despite some of the completely unsympathetic and questionable choices the character makes, Polley manages to keep the character involving. Supporting performances are generally good, although Ruffalo's really the only noteworthy one, even though his choice to make his character seem unconfident and unsure about everything is rather irritating.
Unfortunately, I had several issues with "My Life Without Me". Firstly, the camerawork is irritating. Although I've enjoyed many films with handheld camerawork in the past, the bumbling camerawork here looks like handheld-by-accident. The motion of the camera in some scenes is not only jarring, but completely without reason. There's a few other touches, such as a series of fade-outs and dissolves that accompany the scene where Ann and Lee first meet in a laundromat, that are also completely unnecessary.
Furthermore, while Polley's voice-over works superbly to introduce the mood of the picture as it plays under the first scene, it starts to feel unnecessary after a few appearances. The screenplay strikes some interesting chords and avoids some cliches, only to fall into some embarassing moments (Ann's discussion with a hairdresser about the pros of Milli Vanili) and present some strange choices for Ann. While Ann's idea of sending her daughters pre-recorded birthday notes results in a moving scene, the idea of having the two girls receive messages from their late mother each year is just a tad grim.
The main flaw is that the film goes too far into underplaying the emotion of the situations, which keeps the audience at a distance. Although obviously it's nice to have an illness film without Big Emotional Speeches and a sweeping score, "Life" can seem so purposefully subdued at times as to be flat.
Polley, who I've always been a fan of, manages to offer a terrific performance here, lifting up material that makes a few interesting choices and a lot of off-putting ones, including an inexplicable "happy" ending. This is not a very good movie (it had the potential to be one, had it re-imagined some of Ann's choices), but Polley somehow keeps it at least mildly watchable.
VIDEO: "My Life Without Me" is presented by 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Annoying cinematography aside, this transfer of the material really doesn't do anything wrong. Sharpness and detail are pretty good, as while the image never appears razor-sharp, the picture at least seems consistent and nicely defined.
The presentation's only issue is some light edge enhancement at times. While noticable, this certainly isn't much of a distraction. No compression artifacts are noticed, nor were any print flaws spotted. The film's washed-out color palette appears accurately rendered.
SOUND: "My Life Without Me" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. There are some nice moments where the surrounds are put to use for slight ambience, but this is largely a quiet soundtrack that's dialogue-driven. Audio quality is perfectly fine, as dialogue seemed clean and clearly recorded.
EXTRAS: A 27-minute "making of" documentary is included, as are trailers for: "My Life Without Me", "Fog of War", "The Company", "The Statement" and "The Triplets of Belleville".
Final Thoughts: "My Life Without Me" is a strange movie. The screenplay puts its main character through objectionable actions, some aspects seem entirely unbelievable and yet, the performances do a surpising job trying to struggle against these flaws and the dry tone keeps the film from turning into the sappy picture it could have been. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality and a couple of supplements. Fans of the film should consider a purchase, but others who are still interested should rent first.
The Film **