A tearjerker that falters in its attempts at deep thoughts, My Life Without Me examines how looming death can become an opportunity to bring life into high relief. Ann is 23, a mother of two, and married to Don (Scott Speedman), her well-meaning, simplistic first love. She’s either at her night job cleaning a Canadian university or taking care of the family at their trailer. When she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ann starts addressing herself in the second person (“your whole life’s been a dream and you’re only now waking up”), getting wise to everyday denials (“no one ever thinks about death in a supermarket”), and jotting down things she wants to do before she dies (“say what I’m thinking”).
As Ann, Sarah Polley excellently conveys the mysterious calm of someone who is barely holding things together and yet sees beyond the mess. What’s annoying and eventually absurd is writer-director Isabel Coixet’s decision to have her heroine keep the diagnosis a secret. Though supposedly embracing new freedoms, Ann prepares for her death with a to-do list, hemmed in by the same concerns she’s trying to escape. The tapes she secretly records for loved ones are filled with increasingly inflexible requests. She tells her husband to remarry, even setting him up with their next-door neighbor (conveniently named Ann). She instructs her mother (Deborah Harry), a bitter harbinger of middle-aged loneliness, to date. To Lee (Mark Ruffalo), with whom she’s had a half-baked, last-ditch affair, she says: Get some furniture. These sentiments are meant to show how much she cares, but in the end they come across as overly tidy dictates from beyond the grave. —Michael Miller