The American way of death

Sunday November 22 2009
mago sub 2 pix

Sara (Cameron Diaz) and the ailing child Kate, played by Sofia Vassilieva

This film, based on the book by Jodi Picoult, is a fascinating study of American attitudes to death.

As the Greek tragedians well knew, the life of a child was the most precious thing on earth.

Though King Agamemnon was willing to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of peace, his wife Clytemnestra was not.

This was the beginning of Euripides great trilogy The Orestia.

Feelings for a child of the womb can never be quite the same for both parents.

Spreading your seed just ain’t the same.


So this film, too, has such life-and-death matters at its heart but there the similarity ends.

The Fitzgeralds’ family life is shattered when the parents find that their daughter Kate, diagnosed with leukaemia in early childhood, is now a seriously ill teenager.

The solution is a peculiarly modern one: create another specially genetically engineered child by IVF who will save the invalid from the inevitable, sacrificing the new one’s health and freedom in the meantime.

Here at last is a movie that takes on some big contemporary questions and tries earnestly to grapple with them.

But it fails to discuss, opting instead to emote blindly with soft-focus shots and heart-rending ballads.

In the process it reveals some other schisms in American society — chiefly the reversal of roles between parents and children.

What is it that stops the adults from being able to grow up?

This isn’t new: the 1993 Sleepless in Seattle hit starred Tom Hanks as a bereft widower who cannot get his life together after his wife has died.

It is left to his son Jonah to go to inordinate lengths to organise a substitute mother both for himself and his dad (Every good guy needs a mom).

Here too, Sara (Cameron Diaz) cannot confront the very idea of losing her child and goes to extremes to avoid even discussing it.

The consequences of Frankenstein-like, creating a saviour for the diseased Kate are never broached by the parents, even though Sara was a top-notch lawyer before she gave up work to care for her sick child and her husband Brian (Jason Patric) — an intelligent enough fireman.

“Thou shalt not talk about death,” is the 11th US commandment.

But the children do; adult-like, with that characteristic American precocity of creatures who come out of the womb knowing it all, Anna (Abigail Breslin), the manufactured daughter, refuses to go on being a victim after countless operations to supply her sibling with various missing blood components and bone marrow.

“I wanna be able to be a cheerleader!” she cries.

The crunch comes when she is expected to part with a kidney.

At that point she does what any sensible American would do: Find the best lawyer for the job.

Alec Baldwin, who suffers from epilepsy, is contracted to sue her parents so that she can have control of her own body.

The court case provides some of the film’s best moments: the judge, a solemn woman who had a breakdown after her own child was run over, listens and comments shrewdly, though she has no time for Anna’s lawyer, not realising his dog is there in court to prevent epileptic attacks.

The men have a hard time in this movie, forced into passivity by domineering women who have been trained to have everything they want.

They can make soft mooing noises but that’s about all. The women run the show.

That also goes for the quiet son, Jesse (Even Elingson) who can never be given help with his dyslexia because everyone’s too busy fussing over Kate.

Which points to another problem: The American way of bringing up children veers between giving them everything they want and then screaming hysterically when they themselves don’t get their own way.

“Don’t you love your sister?” Sara asks Anna when she won’t give away her kidney. “Yes, but I wanna lead a normal life too,” replies the adult-child.

There is a further twist which I cannot reveal in the relationship between the two sisters, but all ends on a note of peace, harmony and reconciliation.

The saint-like Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) faces death like someone who has undergone bereavement counselling all her life.

There is a sickly-sweet saintliness about her as she goes about comforting everyone else, going through her photo album with her mom to help her to relive the moments they have had together as a classically happy family.

It has its faults but for those like me who need to clear their tear-ducts at regular intervals, it’s fine entertainment.