By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Lots of movies are escapist in one way or another. Decoding Annie Parker, the true story of a Toronto woman’s battle with cancer, is just the opposite.
It offers itself as a grim conversation starter, confronting the issue of hereditary breast cancer.
The parallel stories of two women through the ’70s and ’80s are interwoven in this inspirational drama: one is a cancer survivor, the other a cancer explorer. Both battle the odds during fifteen-year journeys of desperation and determination.
One is that of the title character (played by Samantha Morton), a Canadian who grew up in a family that sees cancer as a monster that stalks them.
And as she feared, she is diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that claimed the lives of her grandmother, mother, and sister. The life she lives from that point on is a nightmare filled with surgery and chemotherapy.
The other is that of Mary-Claire King (played by Helen Hunt), the stoic research geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley, who is convinced that there is a hereditary basis to certain forms of breast cancer –- certainly a minority view in the male-dominated medical profession.
King has undertaken as her mission the uncovering of breast cancer’s genetic roots as she battles for credibility and consequent funding.
Their lives intersect because of King’s fervent belief in genetic predispositions by collecting information on families with an unusually high incidence of breast cancer.
Annie doesn’t get much support from her unreliable husband, a pool cleaner and musician (played by Aaron Paul), but a loyal nurse friend (Rashida Jones) and a sympathetic doctor (Corey Stull) help her cope, endure, survive, and solve the mystery that becomes her primary focus, which is the genetic secret that has taken the lives of her loved ones.
King’s herculean research efforts result in a major medical breakthrough: the 1990 discovery of conclusive evidence of the location of the BRCA1 hereditary breast cancer gene.
And knowledge about the link between DNA and cancer will forever profoundly affect the way cancer is diagnosed and treated.
Writer-producer-director Steven Bernstein, a cinematographer making his directing debut, co-wrote the script with his son, Adam Bernstein, and physician Michael Moss. There’s a smidgen of gallows humor along the way, but for the most part the two tales are just related until they dovetail in a way that seems arbitrarily manufactured.
Let’s face it: this is tough-sledding subject matter for the movie screen. And although it’s an unsettling film to watch, we remain aware of, and impressed by, its level-of-difficulty ambitiousness.
And with so many lives so profoundly affected by this devastating disease, there’s hardly anyone out there who’s not somehow connected to whomever the target audience is.
So we’ll cure 2½ stars out of 4 for the uplifting Decoding Annie Parker, a heartfelt real-life drama about one of life’s toughest battles.