You could pass Sarah Polley in the street without giving her a second look. No Hollywood beauty, the almost criminally gifted young Canadian actress has nondescript fair hair, slightly buggy blue eyes and a broad face with prominent gums showing above uneven teeth that I hope to God she never straightens. She has a soft, ethereal voice, and such is the breadth of her range that you may not even realize how many films you’ve seen her in over the last few years. Among the standouts on the 23-year-old’s preternaturally long résumé are Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim, in which she played the long-lost daughter of a gold-rush miner, and Audrey Wells’ Guinevere, in which she shone as a young girl in love with a much older photographer. Polley deserves her moment in the sun, but one has to have misgivings about her current ascent to big-ticket movies — next year she will star in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead — if only because her unique ability to inhabit ambiguously sympathetic characters without charming or pandering to an audience will likely be bled out of her if she goes the Hollywood route.
Polley has the trick of raising ordinariness to a kind of exaltation, which she did most notably playing an eerily self-possessed teenager paralyzed in a school-bus accident in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. In Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, the story of a “good” death accomplished under intolerable conditions, Polley plays Ann, a young woman who lives with her intermittently unemployed husband Don, Scott Speedman, and two small daughters in a cramped trailer in her mother’s unkempt backyard. The mother (a very good Deborah Harry) is a bitter woman who regales her granddaughters at bedtime with the parental misdeeds of Joan Crawford. Having collapsed on the job at the university where she works as a cleaner, Ann gets the news from a shy, sensitive doctor (Julian Richings) that she has an inoperable tumor and has only weeks to live. She means, her gentle voice-over tells us, to experience “all the things they talk about in books you’ve never read.”
Loosely based on a short story by Nanci Kincaid, My Life Without Me rests on a premise that cinema has overused to the point of vulgarity: When first we meet Ann, she’s standing in torrential rain, smiling — inauspicious movie shorthand for someone who’s just made the transition from surviving life to living it to the fullest. In Kincaid’s version, Ann more plausibly freaks and goes around telling everyone she knows that she’s dying; in the movie, she forces the doctor to look her in the eye, asks him for a candy, then goes off and tells her family that she’s anemic and needs to rest. Then she calmly makes a list of things to do before she dies, from recording messages for her daughters for every birthday until they hit 18, to having false nails put on, to taking a new lover and visiting with her jailbird father (Alfred Molina).
My Life Without Me is not Coixet’s first film, but in more ways than one it feels like it is. She piles on symmetries and coincidences that stretch belief. The movie is propelled by the less-than-startling notion that we only start living when we’re under death’s gun, and to drive home the point, Ann is surrounded by friends and family — including that statutory kook Amanda Plummer as a diet-obsessed overeater — fretting about things that don’t matter or can’t be helped. And it all but caves under Coixet’s desire, like that of her heroine, to make everything come right. Lest we fail to grasp the grimness of their lives, she swathes her working-class characters in night, fog and rain. Yet despite the atmospheric clichés, Lisa Robison’s crisp, imaginative editing makes for some achingly lovely scenes: quick cuts of the excellent Mark Ruffalo as Ann’s potential lover, leaning further and further forward on a rickety Laundromat chair to watch ardently over the exhausted Ann as she sleeps on an ancient sofa; Deborah Harry’s beautiful bone structure bathed in nighttime shadow, sagging under the blows life has dealt her; fleeting and blissfully unexplained shots of a boy making music on wineglass rims.
Above all there’s Polley, animating Ann’s pallor as she lets a whole palette of contradictory emotions — fear, anger, fatigue, then a trembling radiance — seep through her expressionless features to redeem her from the rote sainthood she’s been prescribed. My Life Without Me was produced by the studio of Pedro Almodóvar, and one sees the Spanish director’s influence in the way Polley edges her Madonna with a touch of the reckless sensualist. Straining to make everything turn out fine for her family and friends, Ann is impossibly holy. Transforming her into a woman who wants what she wants and reaches for it now, Polley not only subverts cliché but humanizes one of the most hard-heartedly malicious phrases in the American language — trailer trash.
MY LIFE WITHOUT ME | Written and directed by ISABEL COIXET | Based on the story “Pretending the Bed Is a Raft” by Nanci Kincaid Produced by ESTHER GARCÍA and GORDON McLENNAN | Released by Sony Pictures Classics At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, NuWilshire