Fixin' to Die

My Life Without Me strums lively chords in the face of death

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, thinking viewers will note that however "real" the story seems, we are also most definitely entrenched in the realm of allegory. This dual approach plays out with darkly dreamy beauty, and Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet 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 (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; Ann launches early into motherhood, perhaps to imbue her so-called life with meaning. She tends to her dewy husband, Don (Scott Speedman), and young daughters (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy, both pros) in a funky little trailer. 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.

Significantly, the tale 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." Ann reflects similarly: "Candies are so good."

Like Zevon, Ann mounts an ambitious agenda for her final days, producing in her pink notebook a "List of Things to Do Before I Die." The thing is, she keeps her ovarian tumors a secret, copping a fabricated plea of anemia. Only her patently timid physician (Julian Richings) knows the truth.

This setup could have produced a melodramatic toboggan-run down Dung Mountain, but Coixet and her brilliant editor, Lisa Robison, work miracles. Throughout, Ann's actions are touching and -- given a little thought -- deeply disturbing. Begging no one's permission, Ann decides to set up her husband with a new wife, then gets herself another lover in romantically ransacked Lee (Mark Ruffalo) just to see how it'll feel.

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. This sounds like a horrid cliché, but My Life Without Me is the most life-affirming film about death to come along in ages. In the genre of tragic romance, it bears a delightfully updated theme: Love means telling everybody absolutely everything before it's too late.

 
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