Sisterhood of the Big C: Hardwicke and Case of the Dramatic Cancer Clause
Those who’ve been yearning for a remake of Garry Marshall’s beloved 1988 tearjerker Beaches but were afraid to admit it are in luck. Director Catherine Hardwicke has done just that with her latest film, Miss You Already, a contemporary documentation of two life-long girlfriends torn asunder by cancer. At times touching and not without a certain degree of emotional depth, there’s an odd tone of inauthenticity plaguing this melancholy friendship fantasy, enough to rob it of real dramatic integrity. It’s a rare portrait of sobering adulthood from Hardwicke, who tends to gravitate towards angsty portraits of rebellious teens, from her much loved debut Thirteen (2003) to the first chapter of the Twilight (2008) film series. But it’s another failed attempt at Hardwicke’s struggle to reinvent herself, following on the heels of fairy tale reboot Red Riding Hood (2012) and stalker thriller Plush (2013). Empathetic but awkward and ungainly, the film feels like ‘girls just wanna have fun before they die’ and doesn’t quite handle friendship or death with believable sincerity.
Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette) have been best friends since they were young girls, and as Jess is about to give birth to her child with no one by her side, we flashback through their friendship leading up to that point. Following the waywardness of their girlhood years, wild child Milly settles down with a handsome record producer (Dominic Cooper) and has two children while Jess struggles to find romance. When she does, it’s with a rugged oil rig worker named Jago (Paddy Considine), and as they work out the mechanics of having a baby, Milly is diagnosed with cancer, leaving Jess to put her family plans on hold to help care for her friend. Unfortunately, Milly’s emotional needs eventually run amok, leading the friends to an argument following a reckless moment on Milly’s birthday which leads the pair to a surprise jaunt through the Yorkshire Moors.
With the same kind of symbiotic identity montage featured in the opening of Francois Ozon’s gender bending throwback The New Girlfriend (2014), we get pointed exposition concerning Jess and Milly as schoolgirls following the former’s transfer to London from America. The usual juxtaposition ensues, with Jess’s brown mouse forever in the shadow of the outré Milly, acting out against her need to fill the void left behind in the wake of her actress mother (an enjoyable Jacqueline Bisset).
Men and procreation factor into this regular trajectory, with Milly seemingly having it all—a handsome, doting husband (unbelievably played by Dominic Cooper), a loving child, and an enviable career. Until it’s discovered she has breast cancer. Then, Miss You Already veers off into the same scenarios we’re accustomed to, with Milly’s selfishness blotting out the needs of others in her life, including best friend Jess, whose hard won pregnancy with beau Paddy Considine is overshadowed by Milly’s flagging health, beginning with the loss of her breasts (one of the sole scenarios handled with a bit of candidness). A clichéd obsession with the Bronte Sisters and their morbidity leads to a recurring Wuthering Heights motif, which ends up being the familiar narrative we’d rather be retold than the banalities here.
Barrymore is never quite believable as the staunchly supportive best friend, and it’s difficult to watch Collette’s more pointedly emotional moments ruined by the void of Barrymore’s constant soft spoken girlishness. Unfortunately, their required ‘best friend’ exchanges are somehow more enjoyable than Collette’s scenes with Cooper, who seems to think empathy is conveyed solely through a whipped, hangdog expression.
This is a far cry from Collette’s initial breakout hit Muriel’s Wedding (1994), wherein her title character goes through a similar scenario with a disease stricken best friend played by Brenda Griffiths (in comparison, it’s frustrating to see how much Miss You Already gets wrong).
Written by British actress Morwenna Banks (who has also penned a number of television projects), the film is discouraging towards women and their capabilities, reinforcing the idea that women will never be better than fulfilling their biological responsibilities as mothers. Right in the middle of the film’s most touching sequence, where Milly is rushed out of hospice despite being crippled by pain to be at her friend’s side during childbirth, she promises, “You’ll never do anything more important” as a gush of encouragement. One would hope this is not the case.