You're a twenty-three year old mother of two. You're married to the only man you've ever kissed, a sweet guy you met at Nirvana's last concert. Your dad's in prison, and you live in a trailer in your mom's backyard. When she babysits, she captivates your daughters with inappropriate stories from Joan Crawford movies. And you've just been diagnosed (by a doctor who won't look you in the eye) with inoperable cancer.
You haven't had much of a life, frankly, and now you're facing the end of it. What do you do?
This is the premise of My Life Without Me (Isabel Coixet, 2003), a quiet, quirky movie with the luminous Sarah Polley in the lead role.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Downer. Weepy. Skates too close to one of the mortal fears we develop the moment we become parents. But bear with me, because the movie is not unendurably sad and if--raise your hand--you choke up at Kodak commercials, wouldn't you prefer tears provoked by a thoughtful, beautifully acted film than manipulated by clever advertising executives?
Ann, the film's immensely practical and unsentimental young mother, writes a list. There's a lot to do in the uncertain time she's got left, and she doesn't want to leave anything out: Tape record annual birthday messages for the girls. Take the family for a picnic on the beach. Get fake nails. Sleep with another man, just to see what it's like. And start to think, as she puts it, about my life without me.
This is not something I normally contemplate. I'm pretty healthy, eat well, and get a decent amount of exercise. But when my husband and I met with the accountant recently to do some financial planning, he asked brightly what our life expectancy was and quite obviously expected an answer. My superstitious self worried that if I claimed a lifespan longer than this suddenly uncomfortable meeting, I'd be struck down by a bus on my way out the door. So I studied my fingernails and mumbled that my parents are still going strong in their 70s. The accountant, satisfied with this, suggested we plan for ninety years, and, thankfully, moved on.
But on the way home, troubled by the accountant's question and my recent movie choice, I started wondering what would happen if accident or misfortune cut short those ninety years.
I don't want to be morbid nor maudlin, because the film is neither. It wards off sentimentality by keeping us at a distance from the heavier scenes, shooting them from across the room or through a window. We hear Ann's thoughts in voiceover, and her calm tone also helps keep the film from spiraling into sadness. Her musing about death even gets acted out in a comically surreal grocery store dance. In its off-beat way, the film reminds us that while our children's incessant demands can distract us from terminal thinking they do also insist that we face our mortality. Unthinkable though it may be, we have to plan for their lives without us.
Ann's plan is to keep her diagnosis a secret, figuring this is the only gift she can give her young family. She starts eyeing the single women she knows, wondering if any of them would make a suitable replacement. Her diet-obsessed co-worker? No. The Cher-wannabe at the diner? No. The Milli Vanilli groupie at the hair salon? Definitely no. The pretty young nurse next door, who once held a pair of dying preemies for 30 hours? Perfect. She's even got the same name as our heroine.
She keeps up appearances while she can. She works nights cleaning classrooms and carpools with her bitter mother (played with wonderful understatement by Deborah Harry; yes, Blondie's a grandma!) The weather's dismal and the trailer's cramped, but she finds the energy to enjoy her family--making love with her husband and roaring like hungry lions with her daughters at breakfast. The movie offers sights rarely seen on film: young parents who are good parents; a family coping well with little money; a daughter managing mature relationships with her own flawed parents.
In a story populated largely by women who want to change themselves, Ann's ambitions are modest. She gets her fake nails, and even a lover, but still, the secret life her illness inspires fits within the narrow constraints of her poverty, her motherhood, her sense of responsibility. A night out is at the 24-hour laundromat. Time for reflection comes at a fluorescent-lit diner: "Thinking," she comments in voice-over, "You're not used to thinking...You never have time to think." That's the gift illness gives her.
"This is you," Ann marvels to herself. "Who would have guessed it?" Finally, this is the gift the film gives us. It's more than the story of a young mother facing death, but about the wonder of finding yourself in an unexpected position--be it motherhood, illness, or poverty--and finding a flicker of beauty in it.