June 26, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long: Film Review: 'My Sister's Keeper' -- GRADE: B

Well-made 'My Sister's Keeper' looks at how one child's illness can strain many lives

Abigail Breslin, left, was conceived in order to provide body parts for her dying sister, played by Sofia Vassilieva, in "My Sister's Keeper." (New Line Cinema)

A surprisingly lovely movie about an absolutely awful subject, "My Sister's Keeper" features what also may be the year's first performance worthy of Oscar mention.

That performance does not come from headliners Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin or Alec Baldwin, although they are all very fine. It comes from Sofia Vassilieva, a co-star on TV's "Medium"; and the wonder is that it manages to be both breathtaking and well-centered, avoiding showboating while still delivering maximum emotional impact.

Walking such a line is difficult when playing a dying teenage girl, but Vassilieva pulls it off beautifully. Also walking a difficult line is director Nick Cassavetes, who co-wrote the screenplay adapted from the Jodi Picoult novel along with Jeremy Leven.

Cassavetes has proven with two wildly different films -- the ultra-romantic "The Notebook" and the harrowing suburban horror-show "Alpha Dog" -- that he's keen to bring difficult material to fruition. And the material here is downright dangerous, constantly veering toward easy sentiment, maudlin melodrama and precious plot turns.

Yet Cassavetes keeps it all under control. Any film about a family watching one of its members slowly die is going to be a bit weepy, and why shouldn't it? But "My Sister's Keeper" never becomes the trite, hundred-hankie affair you expect. Simply put, it's better than that.

Breslin plays Anna Fitzgerald, now 11 but conceived as a test tube baby so she could provide matching blood and parts to help keep her now 15-year-old sister Kate (Vassilieva) alive.

The girls' mother Sara (Diaz) is fiercely committed to doing anything to save Kate from the cancer that's been consuming her since toddlerhood, while father Brian (Jason Patric) keeps a wary and worried eye on how Kate's condition has infected the entire family's way of life.

Also in the mix is middle brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson), somewhat overlooked and leaning toward delinquency but still tightly bound to his sisters. Which is why Jesse accompanies Anna when she approaches a lawyer (Baldwin) for representation.

Kate is in dire need of a kidney and Sara is offering up Anna's. Anna is tired of having her body dissected without having any say in the matter. She wants to become a medically emancipated minor.

Sara knows nothing about this until a process server hands her the papers saying she's being sued. Meanwhile Kate lies in a hospital bed, sure to die if she doesn't get Anna's kidney.

The story is revealed from various angles, both in terms of flashbacks and perspectives, and the film, while also being about Kate's personal struggle, is just as much about the impact that such a tragedy has on an entire family. Sara becomes an obsessed monster, Jesse is forgotten, Brian is constantly torn and Anna's life is lived in Kate's shadow.

Cassavetes can't balance all of this perfectly -- a few surprises toward the end seem a few too many -- but he catches so many moments in the right way (clueless members of the extended family; a judge's dilemma; Kate's brief romance) that he impresses far more than misses.

With Vassilieva's heart-rending performance at its center, "My Sister's Keeper" is a sharp exploration of the extended impact of illness and death. No, it's not a good time, but it's a time worth having.

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