Last week, our own Cecilia Ford wrote about the encouraging upswing in movies with strong female protagonists. This season has already featured women in historical drama, action adventure, comedies, indies and science fiction. The latest addition to this impressive roster is a gal-pal teer-jerker, and I have to admit it looked good on paper. Best friends support each other from childhood, through marriage, life and death; good actresses in the lead roles; a trendy London locale. It must have seemed tailor-made for a girls’ night out. (“Be sure to bring some Kleenex.”) Unfortunately, at least where friendship is concerned, the finished product misses the mark.
Miss You Already opens with one of our two best buddies in hard labor. In between contractions, Jess (Drew Barrymore) wryly observes in voiceover, “Ah, childbirth, the most beautiful experience of a woman’s life.” Poor Jess is alone with a sympathetic doula. Her husband is on an oil rig and when she cries out “I want Milly!” the midwife asks, “Who’s Milly?”
Cue flashback montage.
Turns out the girls met at a grammar school in England. Jess was the new girl and an American at that. Milly befriended her and together they negotiated all the rites of passage through adolescence and young adulthood. First kiss, first time going all the way, first pregnancy test. The two consider themselves “sisters from another mother,” although their personalities are quite different. While Milly (Toni Collette) is a rock-and-roller, even after becoming a mother of two, Jess is down to Earth. She’s the Birkenstocks to Milly’s Louboutins.
Both women come to a crossroad at around the same time. Jess finally becomes pregnant after frustrating failed attempts. And Milly learns she has breast cancer. Will their friendship survive even if one of them does not?
We’ve been down this road before. It was 1988 and the movie was Beaches, now a cable television staple. (I always stop and watch a bit if I happen to go past it flipping channels. “Oh nooooo!” my husband yells from the next room, “Not Beaches!”) A chick flick extraordinaire, Beaches was just sentimental enough to become a classic with drama queen Bette Midler nursing preppie Barbara Hershey through her fatal heart disease, “Listen, I know everything about you. And my memory is long.” Watching Miss You Already, I kept waiting for “Wind Beneath My Wings” to start playing. Alas, it never did.
But, there are many similarities. As in the new film, Beaches made a case for opposites attracting when it comes to best friends. Both movies depict a friendship between two women that’s stronger than either woman’s relationship with her spouse. Both use a fight as a plot device to separate the women until fate brings them together again. And, both incorporate gallows humor (to varying degrees of success).
The biggest difference, I think (aside from some ill-advised 80s fashions) is that the friendship between C.C. and Hillary was always at the center of Beaches. In Miss You Already, the friendship is less believable. It seems to have been built on bad behavior, and doesn’t really evolve over time. When Milly struggles to come to terms with her illness, she grabs Jess and a bottle of vodka and bribes a cab driver to take them to the Yorkshire moors. The problem is, we never see Milly as anyone who wouldn’t have done just that — whether she was a teen groupie or a cool professional.
Jess, on the other hand, is a bit too earnest and too supportive. Dragged away from her husband (and pregnant, unbeknownst to Milly), she goes along with the plan, rebelling only after she realizes that it was all a ploy to get Milly laid. “You’re a cancer bully!” she finally yells at her, showing some backbone at last.
As far as Miss You Already’s two actresses are concerned, Toni Collette is doing most of the heavy lifting. And, much of her performance is remarkably good, covering the full gamut of emotions: fear, anger, denial, grief, defensiveness. The movie doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of cancer. Going through chemo, Milly loses her hair and vomits at the table. We see full frontal mastectomy scars and her protracted stay in hospice presents a sharp contrast between the beautiful room and her grey, skeletal frame. As usual, Collette’s work is intense and excellent.
Drew Barrymore seems more adrift — although in her defense, her character Jess is given a lot less to work with. (I also had to wonder why a 30-something year old woman who had lived in England since she was a young child still sounded so American.)
Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine turn in nuanced performances as the two women’s other halves. But, men clearly take a backseat to women in this movie. On the other hand, Jacqueline Bisset is fun to watch as Milly’s soap opera star mother, comically at odds with what’s going on, suggesting organic deodorant and bringing in a Hollywood wigmaker when her daughter’s hair starts falling out. But, this tone deafness is taken to extreme late in the movie when she helps Milly escape from hospice in a madcap race to Jess’s side for the birth. This sequence (and a corresponding one on the oil rig with the father-to-be and his buddies watching the birth — in all its viscous glory — via webcam) felt completely out of place and a bit offensive.
Miss You Already was written by actress/writer Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, best known for the acclaimed indie Thirteen and the first Twilight movie (she was replaced for movies 2, 3 and 4 when Hollywood realized it had a blockbuster on its hands). Both women (and the two stars) have spoken in interviews about how inspired they were by the material. Miss You Already tackles two topics that are important to women. If you see the movie, its unflinching portrait of breast cancer will stay with you.
Sadly, the friendship between Jess and Milly probably won’t.