What is it with movies about terminal illness that keep driving audiences to see them, despite knowing they’re going to get put through the emotional wringer? Certainly at this point there are few fresh angles to take in exploring cinematically the ravages of disease, except to pull a “The Fault In Our Stars”-type manuever and barely acknowlege the disease as a factor until absolutely necessary. No, the reason these movies remain popular is what they say about life and the impact that life has had on others. Catherine Hardwicke’s “Miss You Already” is another such film, and while it treads on well-worn territory we can’t help but embrace it due to the undeniable chemistry of the two lead actresses.
Originally set to star Rachel Weisz and Jennifer Aniston, the central leads fell to Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore. The loss in star power is made up for in spades by the easy connection between the two women, playing lifelong best friends Milly and Jess, respectively. They’ve been friends from the moment Jess arrived in the U.K. as a child, seeing one another through the good times, the crazy times, and inevitably the worst times. Told almost entirely in flashback, it begins as Jess is on the verge of a painful childbirth, all alone and screaming out for her friend. How could such an inseparable duo be apart at a key moment in one of their lives?
Jess is the stable one of the two while Milly is nearly always off the reservation. We see Milly hook-up with a rocker named Kit (Dominic Cooper) at a young age, and get pregnant unexpectedly. While this would normally be the set-up for Kit to be another in a long list of irresponsible movie men, Morwenna Banks’ screenplay actually takes a positive view on the men in their lives. Kit turns his life around and becomes a stable father, marrying Milly and setting up a normal household while she remains a wild child at heart. Meanwhile, Jess, aka the boring one, has settled into a comfortable relationship with an oil rig worker (Paddy Considine) who really wants to have kids.
There isn’t much in the way of dramatic conflict until Milly is suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, and Jess puts her life on hold to help see her best friend through. This means enduring every painful chemotherapy session with her, cleaning up the vomit (of which there is plenty), and standing by as her vain, somewhat shallow friend loses her hair and breasts to the disease. Hardwicke doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the disease, and it’s enough to make audiences uncomfortable at times. But it’s that ugliness which shows the true value of the friendship between the women. They manage to find laughter and light in the darkness of Milly’s illness, providing sorely needed levity when things get tough to endure.
Banks leaves no emotional heartstring untugged, including a random trip to the Moors of “Wuthering Heights” which could prove to be Milly’s last great adventure. But in relying so much on sentimental conventions, neither woman is distinctly developed as individuals. Milly is one-dimensionally self-obsessed until the story needs her to soften up later on, while there’s nothing particularly interesting to see about Jess at all. While Collette and Barrymore are magic together and fit into their roles nicely, a little more character individuality would have been served the film well.
There’s no doubt where “Miss You Already” will end up. There will be lots of tears, lots of sobbing, and plenty of spent Kleenex. Fortunately, Hardwicke, Barrymore, and Collette make the journey getting there worth taking.