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Film Review: My Sister's Keeper

24 July 2009
Appeared in BioNews 518

My Sister's Keeper

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Based on the book by Jodi Picoult

ASIN: B002LL167C

Buy this film on DVD from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

'My Sister's Keeper', directed by Nick Cassavetes and based on the book by Jodi Picoult

'My Sister's Keeper' is based on a book by the author Jodi Picoult. In it, the youngest daughter of the Fitzgerald family, Anna (Abigail Breslin), decides to sue her parents for the 'medical emancipation' of her own body. Having been conceived through IVF and the resulting embryo analysed by PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) with tissue typing to ensure it was a match for her sick existing sibling, Anna was born for the primary reason of keeping her older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) - a leukaemia patient - alive.

The film begins with 11-year old Anna deciding that she does not want to donate her kidney to Kate. She approaches Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), a lawyer, and boldly states that she would like to sue her parents for the 'medical emancipation' of her own body. Since the audience are plunged straight into this, with minimal background information, it is not only surprising and mildly amusing but entirely unrealistic.

The story then unravels through a series of flashbacks. Kate was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of four. Her young parents Sara and Brian Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) discuss the options available with their doctor but the outlook is grim. There are no donor matches for Kate and she will be placed on a waiting list. However, unexpectedly, the doctor announces off the record, that there is an alternative - conceiving another child which would be guaranteed to be a match for Kate - a child donor.

Cut to the present day and the family are served with the Court papers. In order to overcome the obstacle of her being a child litigant, Anna's lawyer acts as her guardian. Although this raises a difficult legal and ethical problem which is highlighted as such, it is largely left unexplained. A riot ensues as the family get to grips with the Anna's actions and try to understand her reasoning - she wants to live her own life, she doesn't want the responsibility and she's important too.

The majority of the film explores the changing family relationships through the highs and lows of Kate's illness. The family are clearly a strong unit but every character is based on a cliché. As the mother, Sara will do whatever it takes to keep her daughter alive. Brian takes a step back, expressing his reluctance with decisions at times but is overridden by his stubborn and determined wife. The two other children have their own issues, which are overlooked due to their sick sibling. These characters could be in a British soap opera, they are unoriginal and disappointing. Moreover, the selling feature of the film - the 'saviour sibling' plotline - is abandoned for the most part.

The legal battle comes at the end of the film. Conveniently, Sara is a lawyer and represents herself, although she's been out of the profession for a while. Stereotypically as the mother, she gave up her successful career to look after Kate, while her husband, a fireman, continued working to support the family.

The court hearing is unrealistic. The female judge has returned to work after a long leave of absence taken to grieve the death of her young daughter. This conveniently sets her up to be sympathetic but leaves her unstable and she is on the verge of tears in almost every scene. The hearing itself is presented more like an episode of a chat show, with huge family outbursts and arguments. Despite this, it is clear that the crux of Anna's case is the lack of consent from her as a child. There are a few very convincing and poignant moments where it is revealed that as a child Anna was enticed with promises of ice cream to go through difficult surgical procedures for the sake of her sister and suffered as a result.

(Spoiler alert!) The biggest disappointment comes when it is revealed that the whole case is a sham as Kate has convinced Anna to bring it. Obsessed with the thought of her keeping her daughter alive, Sara has completely lost sight of what her daughter really wants - to be peaceful and pain free. Kate resorts to convincing Anna to challenge her parents, seeing this as the only way to make her mother understand. Before any judgment is passed, however, the renal surgery Kate is waiting for does not take place and she dies. It is after this that Anna learns she won the legal case.

The film is inevitably full of emotion but this is completely overplayed since every character from the judge to the lawyer has a personal sob story. This, together with the tear jerking music throughout the entire film, is so intense; it is emotionally numbing. The film may have a cathartic effect to those who have lost someone to cancer but in terms of exploring the contentious issue of 'saviour siblings' the film is frustrating and disappointing, leaving very little to offer.

Buy My Sister's Keeper on DVD from Amazon UK or Amazon USA, and buy the book by Jodi Picoult on which the film is based from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

My Sister’s Keeper: stranger than reality
Spiked Online |  17 July 2009
30 November 2009 - by Ken MacLeod 
The Edinburgh Filmhouse ran its fifth Biomedical Ethics Film Festival from 20-22 November 2009 in partnership with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (SHCB), the British Science Association and the ESRC Genomics Forum at Edinburgh University. Its theme was 'Eugenics: Science Fiction or Future Reality?' and its format was film showings followed by comments from a panel leading off a general discussion with the audience. The first day's major film was 'Homo Sapiens 1990', a documentary on ...
27 May 2008 - by MacKenna Roberts 
UK MPs have rejected amendments that sought to outlaw the creation of 'saviour siblings'- babies conceived following embryo testing to ensure their cord blood will provide tissue-matched stem cells for an existing sick child. The controversial clause, contained within the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before the...
9 April 2008 - by Sheila AM McLean 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, currently making its way through the UK's Parliament, marks the first major re-think of the original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, passed in 1990. In the almost 20 years since the Act was passed, new medical developments and techniques have emerged which raise...
22 August 2005 - by BioNews 
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7 May 2005 - by Professor Sally Sheldon 
The recent House of Lords decision in Quintavalle (on behalf of Comment on Reproductive Ethics) v HFEA [2005] represents what will hopefully be the last stage in a long legal battle for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Raj and Shahana Hashmi. The Hashmis have a son of...
28 April 2005 - by BioNews 
The UK's House of Lords has ruled that the decision taken by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to allow the Hashmi family to try to create a 'saviour sibling' was lawful. The highest court in the UK heard the appeal case of Quintavalle (On behalf of Comment on...
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