This is the true story of two women who share a goal but meet just once, for a few moments. Oscar winner Helen Hunt plays scientist Dr. Mary-Claire King, whose pioneering research led to one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 2oth century, the BRCA1 genetic marker for early onset breast cancer. And Samantha Morton plays Annie Parker, a young woman who lost her mother and sister to breast cancer and then, when she was diagnosed with it herself, became dedicated to learning everything she could about the disease. An outstanding cast, a likeable narrator, and a thoughtful script co-authored by director Steven Bernstein take this out of the easy tears of the disease-of-the-week TV movie category. It is an absorbing drama with a lot of respect for its characters and a welcome sense of humor. “My life was a comedy,” a quote from the real Annie says as the movie begins. “I just had to learn to laugh.”
Annie’s mother died of breast cancer when she was a child, and Annie and her sister (Marley Shelton as an adult) superstitiously believe — or pretend to believe — that Death sleeps in a locked room on the top floor of their house, and that their mother make the mistake of awakening it. Their father dies when Annie is still in her teens, and we see her at the first of three funerals in the film, with fatuous remarks from the people attending and a skeezy funeral home employee hitting on her. “A lot of women can’t be cool and in mourning at the same time, but you pull it off.”
A little lost, and overcome with ardor for her musician/pool cleaner boyfriend Paul (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul in a series of 70’s and 80’s hairdos that are both horribly ugly and fake-looking), Annie gets married. They live in the house she grew up in and very soon they have a baby. And then, the last member of her family, her sister Joan, gets breast cancer and dies, funeral number two, same fatuous remarks and skeezy guy.
And then Annie gets a lump in her breast. It is cancer. She has a radical mastectomy and removal of most of her lymph nodes under one arm, followed by chemotherapy. She becomes determined to learn as much as she can about the disease, even building models of cancer and DNA. And she becomes a warrior against cancer, checking her breasts and insisting everyone else check, too. She even offers to check her husband for testicular cancer during an intimate moment.
Meanwhile, Dr. King is insisting that there is a genetic link and working to find it, despite a lack of support. She is told it will take ten years for the computers available to her to analyze the data she is collecting from women who are in families with multiple cases of breast cancer. But Bernstein wisely makes Annie Parker, rather than Dr. King, the focus of the film. This adds warmth and drama to a story that would otherwise be a lot of people in lab coats getting turned down for grants and crunching data. Parker makes an engaging guide to the years of struggle faced by both women, with a wry sense of humor and a steeliness of resolve that, endearingly, is as much a surprise to her as it is to everyone around her. She is very funny quacking (really!) to get the attention of a bored doctor’s office receptionist (Rashida Jones), who later becomes her close friend and ally. Morton is superb, showing us Parker’s vulnerability as well as her courage, and making us understand the scope and the human dimension of Dr. King’s work. When they finally meet we see how in an important way they kept each other going.
Parent should know that this film has themes of cancer, illness, and loss, with sad deaths and some disturbing scenes of symptoms and treatment, sexual references and brief explicit situations, adultery, some very strong language, and drinking.
Family discussion: Why did Paul and Annie have such different reactions to illness? How did humor help Annie stay courageous? Read up on Dr. King and her opposition to patenting gene sequences.
If you like this, try: “50/50,” “Wit,” and “God Said Ha!”