One of my absolute least favorite genres is the "disease of the week" movie. There are lots of genres I prefer less than others, but in the case of this one, I can't understand why people like it. Why would anyone want to go see a movie about people getting sick and probably dying? The nearest I can figure is that, for viewers who like to cry, this is an almost certain tearjerker. Otherwise, perhaps it makes viewers feel good about not being sick. Who knows? But this week, fate has handed me an almost perfect example of what I hate about this genre, as well as an alternate example of just how it can work.
My Sister's Keeper (262 screens) is the bad one, though it does begin with a good idea. Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) was created in a test tube essentially to provide "spare parts" for her older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who is stricken with leukemia. When Anna reaches the age of ten, she approaches a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue for the rights to her own body. But rather than following that lead, the movie then spends the bulk of its running time in the hospital with Kate, watching her get sick and throw up while others weep and study test results. She gets a little brief romance, but it ends tragically. The worst thing of all is that, despite all this focus on Kate, she never emerges as a character. She's always good-natured, strong and loving. (We see her dark side only once, in a flashback.) Essentially, she is defined by her disease. She is "cancer girl" and nothing more. On the other hand, we have Adam (159 screens). Adam isn't dying from his condition, but his life isn't particularly easy either. He has Asperger's Syndrome, which means that he can be highly technical and deals well with facts, but does not do well with human interaction and things like irony, sarcasm, passive-aggression and other human, gray areas. In the film, Adam (Hugh Dancy) is handsome and has a job, and just after his father dies, he meets a new neighbor in his apartment building, Beth (Rose Byrne). She thinks he's quirky and likes him, but doesn't know until later what's really up with him.
What writer director Max Mayer does right with Adam is that he takes a few minutes to define Asperger's for us, and then he lets it go. He trusts us to understand it and reference it ourselves when we need it. The rest of the time, we get to know Adam as a character, who he is, what he likes, how he passes his time. He's not "Asperger's boy," he's just Adam. Surprisingly, the movie actually works like a good, solid romantic comedy with the syndrome as a minor subplot. (Its major drawback is in a subplot about Beth's father and has nothing to do with Asperger's.)
It's that simple: focus on the character, and not on the disease. It's amazing how many movies make a dreadful mistake by not following that rule. Depicting the disease takes research, and many filmmakers simply want to put all their hard work and findings into the film, rather than slip it into the background and use it as the basis for something more emotionally effective. Research is good, but character is king.