My Sister’s Keeper (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking.
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: BC+AB=B+
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $116 million (49 U.S., 46 Intl., 21 DVD)

Written by: Jeremy Leven(The Notebook, Alex & Emma, Legend of Bagger Vance, Don Juan DeMarco) and Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog, Whatever We Do, Blow), based on the novel by Jodi Picoult.
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog, The Notebook, John Q, She’s So Lovely)
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Sofia Vassilieva, Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric, and Evan Ellingson.
With: Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack

Things become very difficult for a family whose youngest daughter suddenly refuses to donate her kidney to her leukemic sister and seeks legal emancipation in order to avoid having to do so. This is despite that fact that she was genetically bred to be a compatible match for precisely this purpose.

Entertainment Value: B
There are a lot of things to like about this movie, and the most obvious of them is a fascinating plot which presents us with moving situations surrounding a child’s disease and challenges us to consider life and death issues. The acting is competent and the characters intriguing, however I felt a bit confused about the timeline being established in the beginning, especially as scenes from the present and the past were intermingled. Another defect was the inexplicable bullheadedness of the mother, although this is ironically one of the things I loved about the movie as well. More on that in a moment. But this is a good, if sad, movie worth seeing.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C+, Violence C+, Language C
There is one scene of teens in bed together, although later dialogue indicates they did not actually have sex. Because it’s about leukemia, there are constant depictions of blood, vomiting, and medical treatments, including a young girl being held down against her will. Profanity is just barely over PG, but properly PG-13 with one F exclamation, although it never seemed excessive. PG-13 is right here, if for no other reason than the themes and questions this movie raises. Younger kids will neither comprehend this movie nor care about it.

Significant Content: A
There are four main themes here. One is the moral dilemma of whether forcing someone to be a medical donor (of kidneys, blood cells, or even bone marrow) is ethical. A second is the always-present ethical dilemma of prolonging life versus achieving quality of life. The third theme is how major family troubles, such as a sick child, can so dominate the life of an otherwise healthy family that other necessary parts of parenting and life get neglected. But the big theme I was very surprised by was the presentation of a father and husband as the wise and virtuous parent in contrast with a controlling, obsessive mother. Even the male oncologist is portrayed as wise and compassionate. Given the dominance of anti-male movies and the even more noticeable drought of those which portray women negatively, this was both surprising and oddly refreshing.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Because this movie is essentially about medical ethics and the dilemmas in that field, there’s certainly plenty to talk about. In addition, there’s a certain indirect value from this movie of simply showing us a family with one leukemic child as the backdrop to these other developments. This means that while the plot focuses on one thing, it’s simultaneously familiarizing us with the struggles of a group of people that should be shown. I always like movies which can expose me to something outside my experience base without really seeming to look directly at it. As art, it does a fantastic job of revealing the effects of a mother turning the life of her child into an idol which then leads her to crush anyone, including that child, who gets in her way.

Discussion Questions:
~Did you happen to notice the presentation of a wise father and a disordered mother as something unusual to see in a movie? Why do you think this is so rare? What are the effects of repeatedly presenting women as wise and men as fools?
~If you can describe it in words, what is Sara’s flaw? Compare what it is that makes her such a mess compared to her husband? What might a vibrant Christian faith have done for her in this situation?
~If you had a child diagnosed with leukemia, would you consider breeding a compatible sibling for her? At what point, if ever, would you consider allowing that child to make the decision to continue to undergo medical assistance for her sister? What do you think of Anna’s efforts to not be forced to donate her kidney? Is she obligated to help her sister in this particular and extraordinary way?
~When you were watching this movie, how did you think it would end?
~In the beginning, Anna talks about how the only time children are born are when people get drunk, fail to use contraception properly, or have trouble with conceiving on their own. What fourth category is obviously missing? What does her commentary say about our culture? How do you think people who can’t have children of their own view the decision by others to deliberately avoid having children?
~What do you think about the choice to have another child in order to have a donor when the value of having another child was not a sufficient reason to do so? What would it be like to be such a child? What does this movie have to say about the value of having more children, especially given everything that happens throughout the movie?
~How did you feel about the portrayal of teens being romantic and semi-sexual?
~Given the subtext of Jesse’s struggles, how important is it for families to pay attention to the needs and difficulties of all their children? Why does a child in this situation tend to hide or stifle what he thinks because of his guilt over only having such “small” problems in comparison with his sister? How can a parent’s inattention and lack of discipline communicate a lack of love?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Anna meeting Judge DeSalvo and talking about her decision, including the apple juice incident.
~Kate meeting Taylor at her chemo treatment.
~The end scene with all the family members in Kate’s room. What does all their advice and encouragement to her show about their level of intimacy with her? What does her grace in responding to them show about her? What is the message of this scene, and why is it so powerful? Why is their behavior excusable to some degree whereas Sara’s is so deplorable? Do you know how to be truly useful when visiting someone in the hospital?
Overall Grade: B+
It’s good. Very good. It’s not nearly as hard to watch as you might expect, but it’s still quite moving.

It’s Complicated (2009)

Rated: R for some drug content and sexuality.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: CD+D-C=D+
Budget: $85 million
Box Office: $234 million (113 U.S., 103 Intl., 18 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Nancy Myers (The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, The Parent Trap, directed What Woment Want, wrote Father of the Bride 1+2, Baby Boom, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Irreconcilable Differences, and Private Benjamin)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin
With: John Krasinski and Lake Bell.

Summary: Several years after their divorce, a couple reignites their romance despite the fact that he is remarried to a much younger woman.

Entertainment Value: C
Like so many movies these days, this is a mixed bag in the entertainment category. First, it has many funny parts, laugh out loud funny parts, although most of them came after the 45 minute mark. At the same time, however, it’s a really weird movie. Steve Martin is just plain bad in his role as the semi-desperate but wounded other man. In fact, Martin is just slightly more than all the rest of the characters in feeling very much like they’re all playing roles and reciting lines. Because of this, none of the characters are particularly believable as real people, more like well-edited forms of certain stereotypes that perhaps a modern sexual liberal wants to believer exist in the real world but only do in movies. But more than that, it’s just unsatisfying, both throughout and at the end. Also, the editing is terrible and noticeably so. So, funny but weird, a C is the only fair verdict I can give.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence A, Language C+
The big issue here is adultery, semi-sexual scenes, implied sex, and sexual discussion including an extended discussion of female anatomy,. The entire premise of the movie is the okayness of infidelity with your former wife. There is also an extended scene of marijuana use, which is sort of a minor theme in the movie, and occasional alcohol consumption and drunkenness. Language is fairly mild, maybe only PG if that’s all the movie had. The only violence are some slapstick type scenes, and in context that’s surely not what would keep you from this movie. I say R-15.

Significant Content: D-
Divorce is hard, or, to quote the movie, complicated. Feelings of affection and the momentum of intertwined lives linger on well after a marriage ends. Extra-marital sex is a perfectly acceptable and even liberating way to resolve these feelings, even if it means a remarried partner is committing adultery. If that woman stole the man through adultery in the first place, then it’s actually a kind of relational justice. Women want to think they don’t need a man to be whole, but maybe they really do.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Perhaps because of the complexity of the situation and probably because of Nancy Myers’s long history of writing movies like this, there are plenty of things to talk about here. That’s the good news. However, the terrible production value and editing and fakeness of the whole thing ratchets this value back to another mediocre mark. On the other hand, this movie really gets at some of the truly tragic aspects of divorce, including the loss of shared history and knownness which can never truly be replaced merely because they require time to establish.

Discussion Questions:
~One of the themes in this movie is over the question of labeling a relationship properly. Given the clarity of labels such as married, single, and engaged, why does modern society struggle with labels for the new relational constructs? How do labels help clarify our moral judgments?
~What does Jake seem to miss the most about Jane? What does he want from her now?
~When Jake argues to Jane that their sexual connection was “real and honest,” what does he mean?
Jake (and perhaps Jane, too) seems to think that the way to find out if a relationship is real is to have sex. This will show whether they “have something.” What are the consequences of this way of approaching sex? How accurate a representation of modern sexuality is this?
~Why do you think their sexual encounter would have been so satisfying to both of them? What would have happened to their affair if it hadn’t been? Why is marriage so different from non-marital relationships when sex isn’t so satisfying at any point?
~Jake tries to convince Jane that this affair is a healthy choice for them. Do his arguments have merit?
~Are any of these characters’ choices driven by an awareness of morality or ethical propriety, or are they all driven basically by selfishness, whether constructed elegantly or carnally? Is it fair to say that the essential conflict between traditional morality and modern self-help psychology about whether it’s ever best to do what you don’t want to do and might even be to your own detriment? What is the Christian perspective on the benefit to self of sacrificial behavior and suffering?
~Clearly one of the themes in this movie is the injustice of successful older men leaving their aging wives for more attractive women. Why is this so unjust? In what way might a middle-aged woman watching this movie view Jane as a sort of hero who gets symbolic revenge on all the younger women who do this?
~In what ways is this movie supportive of divorce and in what ways critical of it? Why is the portrayal of the three children as being essentially healthy and well-adjusted so important to this movie’s premise?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Jane revealing her affair to her friends and seeming to wrestle with the morality of what she’s doing. Why do the friends so quickly squelch the one who points out that there might be something “sort of wrong” with this behavior? What ideas about entitlement and propriety are operating behind the idea that she never does anything wrong and so she’s “allowed this one?” Does the fact that Agness committed adultery against Jane justify Jane’s doing so back against Agness later? Why do you think she struggles with the ethics of this relationship more than Jake does?
~The second time Jane and Jake have sex at her house. What is symbolized by the fact that now she sleeps on the other side of the bed? Why is she so reluctant to have him see her naked, even though they’ve just had sex? What is the difference between how we worry about our bodies when we are married compared to when we are not? What does the willingness to be seen naked say about our level of security and intimacy in a marriage?
~The adult children lying in bed comforting each other and Jane explaining everything to them. What truths about divorce and the processing of it by children does this scene reveal? Why is her use of the phrase, “Now we’re divorced, for better or for worse,” so poignant?
Overall Grade: C-
A sometimes hilarious movie with odd characters and plot that nevertheless places its finger on some very uncomfortable aspects of modern sexuality. Unfortunately, the resulting worldview is primarily about self-satisfaction and happiness rather than about obligation and moral principle, so that things which are truly immoral become merely unsatisfying choices. The celebration of selfishness is overwhelming.