My Sister’s Keeper

“My Sister’s Keeper.” Nick Cassavetes, director. Curmudgeon Films, 109 minutes.

After Cain kills his brother Abel in a fit of rage, God asks him where his brother is (as if God didn’t already know…). Cain’s response has sparked debate and influenced public policy for millennia: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Good question. Are we responsible for the lives and livelihoods of others? When a conflict exists between community and individual needs, which takes precedence? Must we ensure that all members of our community are clothed, fed, housed, nurtured, educated, and medicated? And just exactly who is “my brother,” anyway? The person who shares my immediate parentage? The tribe members who share my gene pool? The people who live in my neighborhood? My state? My solar system?

As Obama and the Democratic congress vilify the rich and debate the largest income redistribution plan in history, along comes a film that addresses the same issue in microcosm. “My Sister’s Keeper” tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, Anna (Abigail Breslin) who wants to be medically emancipated from her parents to avoid being required to give her kidney to her leukemic sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva).

Designed in vitro as a donor match for the purpose of providing umbilical cord blood to save her sister’s life, Anna now says she is tired of being poked, injected, and scarred. “I don’t want to be careful the rest of my life,” she explains about the consequences of kidney donation. “I want to play soccer, have children, drink!” Her mother shouts back, “People give kidneys to total strangers every day. Why can’t you do that for your sister?”

Throughout the film, Anna says nothing about her sister’s needs, or the fact that Kate will surely die without the kidney. Kate says nothing about Anna’s choice either–she neither pleads for the kidney nor acquiesces to death. Therein lies the weakness of the film’s story, and the strength of its philosophy as well. Surely these two sisters would have talked about Anna’s decision. Surely Kate would have acknowledged graciously that Anna has given enough, or else railed against her for being so selfish. We expect that in this kind of emotionally voyeuristic film genre. But they don’t talk about it at all, and that dishonesty in the storytelling gives the film an oddly detached and sterile tone.

At the same time, I had to applaud the strength of the film’s philosophical integrity. How refreshing that Anna wasn’t required to justify her choice. If Kate had indeed told Anna it was okay to keep her kidney because she was prepared to die, that act would have subtly taken ownership of the kidney away from Anna and given it to the “community”–in this case, to the sister who needed it to survive. I had to cheer a film that has the courage to elevate an individual’s private property above the so-called greater good.

But alas, I cheered to soon. As the film draws to an end, we learn that director Nick Cassavetes has been deliberately manipulating us, leaving out an important conversation until Anna reveals it in flashback at the end. The two sisters have indeed talked about Anna’s decision. In fact, Kate has begged Anna to initiate the emancipation order. She’s the one who doesn’t want any more operations. She’s tired. And because she has the greater need, she has the right to decide who keeps Anna’s kidney. So there it is. The kidney belonged to the community after all.

“You already have one, why do you need two?” demand the do-gooders today, in so many areas of our lives: you already have one house, why do you need a vacation home? Or a second car? Or three bathrooms? Or plastic grocery bags? Or a hundred thousand a year? Or a second kidney. It’s their right to decide.

I shouldn’t have been taken in. Juxtaposed against Anna’s legal battle for ownership of her body is the service dog her attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) keeps at his side at all times, to warn him of the onset of seizures. The message is subtle but definite: If we train puppies from birth to become service animals, shouldn’t we be able to use people for spare parts? Spare me.

In sum, there is almost nothing to make this film worth watching. Cassavetes relies on mechanical manipulation to manufacture audience emotion, using schmaltzy music, shocking scenes of blood and vomit, and glycerin tears in the eyes of the adult characters. The actors are sincere, and Joan Cusack is wonderful as the judge who must decide Anna’s case. But they are hampered by the story’s contrived ending, forced to lead the audience in the wrong direction just for the aha moment at the end. It is not worth the aha.

The film makes some important observations about how parents of seriously ill children often neglect the rest of their children, and each other, in caring for the one who has special needs, but it offers nothing new. Jason Patric has some fine moments as the father who is often neglected. When the mother (Cameron Diaz) argues that Anna owes it to her sister to keep her alive, he responds, “She just wants to be considered. Let her take the credit that it’s her decision.” Now there’s a point worth cheering. We all have the right to choose when or whether to be generous, and to take credit for our choices instead of being forced through taxation to give.

So let’s go back to the beginning. Am I my sibling’s keeper? In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said this:

Do not tell me, as a man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?…I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meetinghouses…; alms to sots,… though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb to give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

Emerson was a generous man who provided housing and living expenses for some of the finest writers of the 19th century: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. If the government had taxed his inheritance away from him, none of them would have had the freedom to write and produce. Emerson was his brothers’ keeper. But he chose for himself who those brothers would be, and he claimed the right to do so without guilt. Like Anna in this movie, we all have the right to decide who, if anyone, will receive our kidneys.

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