My Life Without Me

When people approach the end of their lives, death tends to set the agenda, not the other way around. For those few who are given a timetable, like Sarah Polley in My Life Without Me, the remaining days are not just a precious opportunity to squeeze the last drops of pleasure out of life, but also a chance for loved ones to get a jump on the mourning process. Given two months to live, Polley chooses to die quietly and on her own terms, so she refuses to confide in her family and friends, as though she was quitting a job without giving notice. Fortunately for her, death is on its best behavior, gently asserting itself with a few jags of nausea while still allowing her to tick off all the items on her "To Do" list. Writer-director Isabel Coixet, armed with reams of adolescent poetry in her narration and imagery, wants her heroine to leave a beautiful corpse, eased sweetly and gracefully into the soil. Yet no matter how squarely everything works out in the end, Polley's secrecy is unforgivable, because it selfishly denies her loved ones their rightful place in the process, with no thought to the emotional wreckage left behind. A better movie might have considered the negative consequences, but Coixet turns inward right along with Polley, orchestrating a death that works out nicely for everyone involved, as though Coixet were dictating an uncommonly generous will. Any lingering sympathies for the deceased are entirely due to Polley's typically thoughtful lead performance, which at least makes her character appear more caring than her actions suggest. A 24-year-old who lives in a trailer behind her mother Deborah Harry's house with husband Scott Speedman and their two young girls, Polley works nights mopping up the halls at a local university–a crudely ironic sign that life has passed her by. After she's diagnosed with terminal cancer, Polley seizes the chance to sow her wild oats as she privately sets her family's affairs in order. Looking for the experience she sacrificed by getting pregnant at 17 and marrying her high-school sweetheart, Polley has an affair with Mark Ruffalo, a rumpled loner who falls in love, oblivious to her condition. It would be one thing if Coixet were commenting on how death can make a person selfish or solipsistic, but My Life Without Me asks for sympathy for deplorable behavior: Claiming that "lies are [her] only company," Polley betrays her husband and misleads her lover, albeit with great sensitivity. If her final days weren't meticulously scripted (and whose final days ever are?), all would not be so easily forgiven.

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