The Second Mother
A domestic comedy-drama that starts off from a fairly pat premise but builds strength over the course of its careful, empathetic, and crafty unpeeling of…
After discovering that a cancer will take her life within a few months, Ann, a young 23 years-old, makes two important decisions: to hide the disease from everyone (including her husband and their two young daughters) and to draw up a list of things she wants to do before her death - and her wishes include "making love to another man" and "causing someone to fall for me." This is the point at which "My Life Without Me," directed and written by Isabel Coixet, risks scaring away its viewers: the attitudes of Ann show, yes, selfishness and immaturity.
Hiding her illness from those who are close to her, preventing them to say their goodbyes in a less traumatic way, is a terrible thing -- but to awaken the feelings of a stranger and make him suffer the loss of a new-found love is even worse. Still, one hopes the audience can realize something fundamental: if Ann acts almost like a child, it's because she is almost a child. Becoming a mother at age 17 does not magically turn a teenager into a grown up, even if she has to behave as such.
Living in a tiny trailer parked in the backyard of her mother's house, Ann and her husband Don live a humble existence bordering on poverty. Working nights as a janitor at a university, the girl can barely spend any time with her family -- and even though she gives a ride to her mother every night, the two women seem to have nothing to talk about. However, Ann does not consider herself to be a sad person. The constant kindness of her loving husband and the gentle dynamic she establishes with her daughters are more than enough to cheer her up. Still, it is impossible not to notice that she lives life on autopilot, without paying much attention to the world around.
But isn't that how most people live? At least that's what the film seems to ask, and rightly so: although we live in a world that increasingly makes things easier for us, we are always running -- as if the extra time afforded by modern facilities serves only to allow us to focus on more problems. The sad truth is that we often ignore what should be our priority: to grow as individuals, both intellectually and spiritually (in all senses of the word). Of course we all have difficulties in dealing with the fact one day we will die - and delaying objectives is a subtle way to convince ourselves that we have all the time in the world. Unfortunately, this is not true, and as the protagonist of this film ends up realizing, our insignificance in comparison to the big picture is undeniable - and even what we thought was our live simply goes on in our absence.
It's a pity, then, that so many people are brought down by so little, ignoring the simple fact that their existence is a blessing in itself. Incidentally, "My Life Without Me" is full of sad and frustrated characters who seem to view the world only as a burden to be carried to the finish line: when the melancholic Lee sees a picture of Ann's daughters, for instance, he basically ignores the beauty of the children and simply says "They seem happy," as if this is something rare, almost absurd. In another scene, a waitress says that if she won the lottery, she would undergo several plastic surgeries to look like Cher -- as if having the face of someone rich and famous would be the equivalent of having their supposedly charmed life. Well, we all have our (big or small) frustrations; what we (often) lack is the proper perspective to assess the real importance of these dissatisfactions.
Many of these reflections are expressed by the film's characters, of course -- and the movie does have a formidably talented cast: from Julian Richings (as a doctor struggling to talk to patients) to Leonor Watling (as a nurse who narrates a sad experience), all the actors in this production have the chance to shine at one time or another. Scott Speedman, for example, is incredibly moving in a poignant conversation with his wife; not many declarations of love can be so moving as the way he simply says "I would like to be better for you." Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo once again exudes charisma while turning Lee into an almost tragic figure in his solitude: existing in the emptiness of a broken relationship (literally, since his house does not even have furniture), he continually gets tapes from his sister containing incredibly evocative songs, as if even his feelings had to be provided by the recordings.
But the great strength of "My Life Without Me "is the powerful performance of young Sarah Polley, who portrays Ann's immature choices with such conviction that we almost forget that she could spend her remaining time in a more healthy way. Furthermore, the actress shines especially when her character tries to ignore the imminence of death while playing with her daughters: observe Polley's face and notice how, despite her smile, her eyes are sad and distant, in a clear demonstration of the complexity of her portrayal.
Another beautiful moment is when Ann, while shopping in a supermarket, reflects on how such mundane actions can become romantic when viewed from the perspective of someone who will soon not be able to perform them: to illustrate this interpretation, Coixet draws on one of the most exquisite sequences of Cinema: the "ball" in the subway station in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King." The difference is that while that dance was an imaginary celebration of the immense love Robin Williams had for Amanda Plummer, here the illusion arises from Ann's sense of loss.
It's no wonder that, during the film, the protagonist sees, on two occasions, someone "extracting" music from crystal glasses. What Ann sees, and what makes the film so moving, is that beauty can be found in the most trivial objects, and even the texture of an orange's peel or a drop of milk can make us remember how good it is to live to see another day.
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