This is a beautiful portrait and character study of life and death, and is pleasantly heavy with symbolism. It also observes one persons attempt at achieving personal goals she never could do, or have the guts to do in their life. The lovely Sarah Polley plays Ann, a workaday woman who is a janitor for a school and goes home to her trailer with her husband and two daughters living a mostly simple life with her overbearing mom and life she’s pretty comfortable with. One day during work she starts getting sick and goes to the hospital where her doctor tells her she has an inoperable tumor and is slowly dying. Somehow Ann seems prepared to face death and the concept of death here, and it doesn’t take much time for her to accept her death and that her daughters may grow up without a mother, thus she begins to really live life while she begins dying.
Polley’s character undergoes a transformation within the arc of the story, and Polley successfully manages to convey her transformation with a seamless transition that is so smooth. She presents an air of desperation throughout the movie, firstly trying to accomplish personal triumphs that she couldn’t do in her real life, and what’s all the more better, her actions are realistic and her reaction is downplayed. What’s odd is Ann doesn’t seem very heartbroken, because you’re never sure if she’s really happy with her life. She’s comfortable, but comfortable doesn’t always mean happy. She makes a list of tasks to perform before she finally dies including getting fake nails, changing her hair, smoking and drinking as much as possible, and having an affair with another man.
Ann commits all the faults of life in one swoop and her tasks represent her somewhat subconscious true desires. Surely, the man she has an affair with, Lee is the complete opposite to her husband Don. The character Lee played Ruffalo (in a good performance) is a more brooding, daring and darker man and meets Ann in a Laundromat. Their affair happens spontaneously first with small sparks of conversation and then rendezvous’. Through Lee, Ann also attempts to complete one of her tasks on the list, make a man fall in love with her, since her character at the beginning is mostly plain and unconventional. Lee is different from Don, played by Speedman who is more of a charismatic but settled husband who cares a lot for Ann. Through Lee Ann manages express perhaps her inner desire to be with a man not like her husband and discovers another form of love and passion.
Ann also manages to come to terms with the reality of not being in her own life as she uneasily makes peace with her own mother (Deborah Harry), and visits her jailed absentee father. Alfred Molina has a great surprise walk on role as Ann’s father, and I have to admit, it was surprising to see him make an appearance here being one of my favorite actors. Their scene together is very touching and heartbreaking as her father attempts to make up for lost time by offering to make Ann’s daughters sneakers. There is an excellent cast of actors here who can actually act including Ruffalo who I always like, as the mysterious literature lover who falls deeply for Ann, and Speedman who pulls off the loving supporting husband completely oblivious to Ann’s feats, and of course Polley who is just great here managing to take on the lead role with a lot of competence and skill, and makes her character and her actions sympathetic. She seems to be coasting through her life blindly, and somehow finds the method of living through dying.
We see a slow but significant metamorphoses from Ann who is at first introversive and then suddenly starts speaking her mind (one of the tasks on her list), though she never goes through with it except for the scene where she releases all her frustrations to her self-involved co-worker, it’s a very well done scene from Polley. If I were in Ann’s shoes, I’d spend as much time as possible with my children, confess my love to them, give them advice, play with them, and just enjoy life, but Ann’s actions before she dies are horrible and godly despicable but somehow the writers looked like they were trying to make it look poetic. We never got the sense Ann was really heartbroken about her impending death with the tumor, as well, she never seems really sick in the film, the writers don’t go to any lengths to completely sell she’s gravely sick. It’s odd how she just goes into a state of acceptance so immediately which makes you wonder if there could have been two minutes set aside for tears.
I also didn’t buy some of the list of actions Ann created as her final moments before her death. I didn’t see the point in a lot of the character relationships here, including Ann’s relationship with Lee which is not only hardly focused on, considering it’s a major step in the evolution of her character. Also, Ruffalo doesn’t have much of a role here with sporadic appearances throughout the story to intertwine with Ann, and he’s never given character depth, nor is he shown a lot of consideration toward personality. Their relationship has the potential to be very important and major, it’s a shame there’s not a lot of consideration towards it. Despite some reservations with certain sequences, this is nonetheless a beautiful melancholy study of life, death, love and last wishes. Polley gives an outstanding performance as an everywoman, and Speedman and Ruffalo make due with their roles. Heartfelt dialogue and a heartbreaking climax make this a must-see.