If it were a little bit funnier -- okay, a lot funnier -- My Life Without Me could be a short story by Lorrie Moore. It has that potent blend of upbeat and downbeat (laughing and crying, but never out loud) that Moore has made all her own. And the main character, a young woman (Sarah Polley) who's dying of ovarian cancer, seems to have stepped out of the pages of Self-Help, Moore's first collection of stories, so fiercely does she shy away from facing her own mortality. Polley's Ann speaks to us in the second person, as the young women in Self-Help did. "This is you," she says, setting the movie in motion. Then she starts slowly describing, not the old her, but the new her, the one who, having been told she's dying, resolves to finally start living -- experience "all the things they talk about in books that you haven't read." Alas, there's not much time.
And yet there seems to be just enough time as Ann, like so many movie characters before her, turns death into the ultimate act of self-realization. A practical sort, she makes a list: "Things To Do Before I Die." The list includes such mundane items as "Go to Whalebay Beach together and have a big picnic" and "Go see dad in jail," but also such not-so-mundane items as "Find Don a new wife who the girls like" and "Make love with other men to see what it is like." One item that Ann neglects to add to the list is the one that drives the movie: Don't tell your family you're dying. That she manages to pull this off suggests that writer-director Isabel Coixet wasn't shooting for kitchen-sink realism, but, in most other respects, that's exactly what she was shooting for. Set in cold, rainy Vancouver, My Life Without Me doesn't glorify death so much as try to step gingerly around it.
For instance, Ann shows few signs of her impending demise, despite the fact that it's only two or three months away. "Dying's not as easy as it looks," a doctor tells her during one of her infrequent visits to the hospital, and you have to wonder whether Coixet herself has completely absorbed that message. Still, the movie does a good job of grounding its dreamy fantasies in dreary reality. Ann, who works as a janitor at the university, shares a trailer with her husband (Scott Speedman, the hunk on "Felicity") and two daughters, and Coixet crams us in there with them, suggesting why Ann's never had enough space to spread her wings before. Plus, Deborah Harry shows up as Ann's bitter mother, a gal who, instead of telling her granddaughters bedtime stories, takes them through old Joan Crawford movies. Overall, Coixet shows a nice feeling for the way poverty can grind you down, dull your senses.
Of course, she also has this notion -- a rather hoary notion -- that dying can lift you up, heighten your senses. Maybe it can, but the movie sometimes loses track of the downside; Ann's so busy smelling the roses that she fails to notice that the petals are falling to the ground. Coixet bestows upon her a sweet, touching love affair that begins at the Laundromat -- with You Can Count on Me>'s Mark Ruffalo, no less. And we in the audience can perhaps be forgiven for wishing we'd get a terminal illness so we could do all the things we've always wanted to do. The movie really shouldn't work, but it often does, thanks to Polley's delicate performance. She doesn't do anything fancy, just quietly tackles one impossible scene after another. My Life Without Me, which almost seems to welcome death, would have a lot less life without her.