- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Twenty-three-year-old Ann (Sarah Polley) has plenty to grouse about — and that’s before she learns she has only a few months to live. “My Life Without Me” tells Ann’s tragic story, but rather than wallow in the morbid, it emphasizes the liberation inherent in her impending death.

Miss Polley, an indie darling best known for such films as 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and 2000’s “The Weight of Water,” possesses an inner strength that belies her spare frame. Director Isabel Coixet can’t resist a few maudlin touches, such as when Ann records birthday greetings for her daughters through their 18th years, but mostly she maintains a counterintuitively sanguine look at mortality’s empowering side.

Young Ann lives a life closer to that of a Jerry Springer guest than she would care to admit. She got pregnant with her first child at 17, married her unemployed high school sweetheart (Scott Speedman) and lives in a trailer next to her morose mother’s house. She works nights as a janitor, mopping floors alongside Laurie (Amanda Plummer), whose every conversation revolves around her failed diet.

None of it fazes Ann. Her husband doles out just enough love, and their children are Hallmark-cute.

Ann, so expert at burying life’s disappointments, does the same with the worst news of her young life — she has a terminal condition. She tells no one.

Instead, she makes a list of items she wants to check off before she checks out. Some of them — such as the birthday greetings — are obligatory. Others deepen her character while jeopardizing our sympathy. She wants to be held in a new man’s arms, for her husband’s love is the only passion she’s ever known.

Enter Mark Ruffalo, a needy hunk who quickly falls for Ann. “My Life” offers no commentary on this relationship, nor does it question Ann’s decision to keep her tragic news to herself. Watching her blossom in her final days, seeing her embrace the beauty of life while suppressing such bleak news is the film’s pounding heart.

And the actress has not one false moment.

Particularly effective are Miss Polley’s odd exchanges with her doctor, who can’t even look her in the eye when giving her the grave news. Their friendship is wholly original, even if snippets from the rest of the film feel familiar.

Much of “My Life’s” pleasure comes from Ann reconfiguring her life to fit her whims, something we all wish we could do.

The film strikes a potentially hollow note when it focuses on Ann’s marriage. On paper, the scenes shouldn’t work. They act like newlyweds, despite their economic woes, and the pressures the pair face would seem to be enough to rock the most stable couples.

Mr. Speedman and Miss Polley convincingly portray the complexities of marriage in stark but realistic hues. The young actor, in over his head as the rookie officer in “Dark Blue,” boosts his stock with his portrait of a devoted, if lackadaisical, dad.

“My Life Without Me” teeters on us accepting Ann’s selfish final act, a task made easier, and worthwhile, thanks to Miss Polley’s remarkable turn.

***

WHAT: “My Life Without Me”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual situations)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Isabel Coixet. Original music by Alfonso Vilallonga. Cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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