"I really like the cold -- it makes me feel really alive." There are few more attractive (or more atypical) things a woman can say, and when wunderkind Sarah Polley says this in My Life Without Me -- to a gullible dork she is seducing with totally unconscious malice, no less -- thinking viewers will note that however "real" the story seems, we are also most definitely entrenched in the realm of allegory. Our tragic-romantic heroine is to be perceived as a person, yes, but she's also a symbol of youthful "innocence" -- meaning here ignorance -- unceremoniously crunched by a seemingly arbitrary world. This dual approach plays out with darkly dreamy beauty, and Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet (A los que aman) delivers her subtly stunning feature as one of the most emotionally gratifying -- and challenging -- films of the year.
Polley plays Ann, a 23-year-old immaterial girl whose father (a typically smashing if genetically impossible Alfred Molina) loiters in prison while her mother (Deborah Harry, living large) chooses to languish in an emotional dungeon. Not great starting odds for any kid, thus Ann launched early -- too early -- into motherhood, perhaps to imbue her so-called life with meaning. She tends to her dewy husband Don (Scott Speedman, Canadian for "Heath Ledger") and young daughters (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy, both pros) in a funky little trailer no further out in the terrain of autonomy than her workaday mother's yard. By default a delirious sensualist reveling in British Columbian precipitation and gloom, Ann admits via one of many hypnotic voice-overs that she's "not used to thinking." This daze burns off fast, however, when she discovers she's got only a few weeks left to live.
Coming near the tail of a particularly damned awful year for losing gifted people, My Life Without Me boasts built-in poignance. Those feeling the sting of mortality -- you know who you are -- may find here the familiar bitter pill of losing a vast source of energy, inspiration and potential, but thankfully this is accompanied by a shameless liveliness (the movie's weird reverence for Milli Ventrilli... er...Vanilli speaks volumes).
Quite significantly, the tale also parallels the last days of intrepid, pioneering songsmith Warren Zevon, whose giddy foreknowledge of the death he'd been poeticizing for decades led to an astonishingly simple decree to those he'd leave behind: "Enjoy every sandwich." Here, once the dire news has sunk in, Ann reflects similarly: "Candies are so good."
Like Zevon, albeit without the glorious baritone or bravado, Ann mounts an ambitious agenda for her final days, producing in her pink notebook a "List of Things to Do Before I Die." (Notably, not one of these involves kicking anybody's ass.) The thing is, she keeps her ovarian tumors a secret, copping a fabricated plea of anemia. Only her patently timid physician (Julian Richings, ostensibly Geddy Lee's even weirder-looking brother) knows the truth. He bears the aforementioned candies -- she primly refuses his offers of clichéd stimulants and depressants -- and agrees to harbor the cassettes on which she's recording messages from beyond for her loved ones.
This setup could have produced a melodramatic toboggan-run down Dung Mountain, but Coixet and her brilliant editor Lisa Robison work miracles -- their lingering grace notes at the ends of scenes are pure genius -- emotionally superseding exec-producers Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar's Talk to Her. Here the girl is finally conscious and claiming responsibility, extending kindness to her weight-obsessed janitorial co-worker (fearless Amanda Plummer), directly mocking a stupid waitress, humoring a demented hairdresser: living out loud, as it were.
Throughout, Ann's actions are both touching and -- given a little thought -- deeply disturbing (a youthful veteran of The Sweet Hereafter and Guinevere, among many others, Polley has a knack for tasteful subversion, a gift that eclipses the tackier shenanigans of her fellow Canuck, Center of the World's Molly Parker). Begging no one's permission, Ann decides to set up her husband with a new wife (prioritizing that she's one the kids will like), and then she gets herself another lover in romantically ransacked Lee (Mark Ruffalo), just to see how it'll feel. Criminal is how it'd feel, if his unknowing character were created more realistically, but the action still suits Ann as drawn.
My Life Without Me is vibrant but indeed becomes a tearjerker -- my ducts opened right the hell up. Polley's deft work recording future birthday messages for her daughters is literally a triumph, and her keen awareness of a fellow making music on wineglasses suggests practical otherworldliness. Equally touching is the recurrence of the song "God Only Knows" (intriguingly, composed by Brian Wilson, one of the very few SoCal-based crooners who could hold a candle to Zevon). And from setting her story in a region which features the alternative weekly paper Terminal City to establishing that Ann and Don met at Nirvana's final concert (yes, they pronounce the band in that weird Canadian way), the director surveys the territory with a very keen heart.
It wouldn't be fair, however, to laud the wonders of Polley without also commending her costars -- including Talk to Her's truly luminous Leonor Watling as a fortuitous new neighbor -- for delivering the greatest collection of soul-searching soliloquies in recent cinematic memory. This sounds like a horrid cliché, but My Life Without Me is the most life-affirming film about death to come along in ages, and in the genre of tragic romance, it bears a delightfully updated theme: Love means telling everybody absolutely everything before it's too late.