The prospect of being hanged, Samuel Johnson said, concentrates the mind wonderfully. So, too, with terminal cancer, as a 23-year-old mother of two discovers in the exquisitely crafted, brutally unsentimental film “My Life Without Me,” premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House this week.
The story is set in a chilly gray corner of British Columbia, where the young woman we know only as Ann lives in a trailer with her husband, Don, and adorable little girls. She works nights as a janitor at the local university; he's a laid-off factory worker looking for his next job. Still, they have managed to carve out a warm, contented niche for themselves. Their opportunities may be as narrow as the dimensions of their single-wide, but life isn't all that bad, either.
Until Ann receives a prognosis so wretchedly unjust that even her doctor can hardly utter it.
Ann responds with resolve. She isn't so stoical that she doesn't allow herself some measure of self-pity, but ultimately she decides to live her final days on her own terms — and that means making some drastic, morally unsettling changes. Where once she had simply drifted along, too busy and young for much self-awareness or reflection, suddenly life becomes startlingly clear.
The steps she decides to take elicit conflicting emotions, creating a sense of almost intolerable ambiguity for the viewer. Ann apparently suffers no such distress as she checks off the items on her “Things to Do Before I Die” list. But what are we to think when her bravery in sparing her family and maintaining normalcy is matched by acts of aggressive self-indulgence?
“My Life Without Me” is in essence a kind of fairy tale, a story of good people rising above bad things and becoming healed, albeit in an unexpected, upside-down way. The main characters are so perfectly imperfectly good, in fact, that they almost become archetypal, reminding us how seldom we think to search for heroes in trailer parks and laundromats. This is a sad but thought-provoking meditation on life, its end, and the freedom and perspective that come with knowing when that time will come.
The Smith Opera House screens “My Life Without Me” at 7 p.m. March 4, 5, and 6 and at 2 p.m. March 7. With a running time of 106 minutes, this film is rated R for language. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3. Call 781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to pre-order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.