My Life Without Me is first and foremost an intimate and contrived examination of mortality and the choices we make when faced with the abrupt and permanent altering of our lives by accident, illness, or for no reason we can think of. Contrived means deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously. When was the last time you watched a movie that was not intentionally, purposefully orchestrated for effect even when said result was escapism or pure entertainment? Where this film departs from those parameters is in the telling of a universal story that has affected, or will affect us all. A young woman (Sarah Polley) a wife and mother, learns she is dying and in reaction to the time she has left decides to make a list of what she wants to experience before she dies. When was the last time you considered all the things we as a society think about doing but rarely do in our own lives even without such motivation?
My Life Without Me is a heavy, emotionally taxing film but there is no way of missing that going in. We are immediately made aware of the timeliness of the story and the everyday nuances of people bumping into one another through the course of unremarkable lives. This is where Coixet carefully constructs the starting place for a more profound and meaningful comment on the nature of living and dying. Of course no film can properly or appropriately summarize such expansive contemplation in an hour and a half but like the films 21 Grams and Love Liza, the journey is the movie and what happens along the way, rather than an oversimplified snapshot with a Hollywood happy ending.
Though Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet has slipped from the American feature-film radar recently, her talent for capturing the subtle exchange of emotions between conflicted characters in quiet, often weighty stories remains a memorable hallmark of her cinematic style. My Life Without Me (2003) or Mi Vida Sin Mi is Coixet’s fourth film and stars Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo, Maria de Medeirosand Amanda Plummer. The story moves quickly through the ordinary world of Polley’s life, her nowhere job and modest life with husband and two young girls in a trailer next door to her mother’s house – performed by an austere Deborah Harry (Blondie). Things unravel soon after Ann (Polley) learns she has stomach cancer and has only a modicum of time left to live. This realization sets her off to compile a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies, including make love with another man. Where the story bogs down in some degree is the very reason the film succeeds, weaving a tapestry of dreamy imagery and contemplative impressions of a young woman struck down in her prime and all the ways in which she is exactly like us and more brave than we have ever been.
Reviews of the film are mixed. Some believe the story over sentimental and dreary, tangled by moments of disingenuous emotional tooling than believable and therefore acceptable spontaneous reactions. Mark Ruffalo as the introverted other man is painfully soothing, emoting a multi-layered reserve that might as easily be a mirror for our own damaged lives. Missing these ever-so careful touches are perhaps explanation enough of how audiences and critics were uncertain about the film. Where these elements are enough for the character centric movie enthusiast, it is obvious they are less so for others.
My Life Without Me reminds us about love and loss, the seemingly banal drudgery of day-to-day life that can easily be detoured if not derailed by things completely out of our control. It is not difficult to connect to a film about dying if the undercurrent of themes about opportunity and happiness are crafted as well as Coixet achieves here. You might be skeptical about a movie where the protagonist faces imminent loss, her upturned world left jagged, but rest assured this film resonates with honesty and integrity. In the end, faced with our own mortality, My Life Without Me reminds that things will surely go on without us and the most important life lesson of all is making the most of the time we have and those we choose to invite to the celebration.