When Milly (Toni Collette), a successful PR executive stricken with breast cancer, decides to shave off what remains of her hair, her vainglorious mother, Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset), and lifelong friend, Jess (Drew Barrymore), tense up ever so slightly, as if the Rubicon’s finally been crossed.
“It’s often those watching who find it the hardest,” Milly’s wigmaker (Frances de la Tour) says, and director Catherine Hardwicke’s “Miss You Already,” with its long close-ups of needles and startling splashes of vomit, is highly attuned to this discomfort—so much so, in fact, that it loses the particulars of its characters in a thicket of procedures, becoming a strangely impersonal portrait of cancer’s most intimate consequences.
From the tiresome opening voiceover, in which Jess glosses the origins of her friendship with Milly, their inseparable adolescences, and their respective decisions to settle down, Morwenna Banks’ labored script struggles to add texture to the protagonists, as individuals or in tandem. After Milly’s diagnosis, Jess, a self-proclaimed do-gooder trying to get pregnant with her partner, Jago (Paddy Considine), practically disappears inside her friend’s maelstrom, yet their fitfully funny exchanges scarcely suggest the kind of closeness on which the narrative turns. “I didn’t have many pictures that Milly wasn’t in,” Jess tells us instead. “Until now.”
As Milly and her husband, Kit (Dominic Cooper), wrangle two young children and her worsening health, “Miss You Already” undercuts its admirably prickly engagement with questions of gender and body image (Collette slipping into a busty red dress, or, later, baring her skeletal back after surgery) with paper-thin pop psychology. “I want to FEAR NOTHING,” Milly writes on the local “Before I Die…” installation, confirming in the process that Hardwicke’s own fear—that the story “might veer too much into sentimentality,” as she told The Independent in September—has come true.
Strained in places, slight in others, “Miss You Already” nonetheless manages to suggest the many misunderstandings that pass between the sick and the well, a seemingly unbridgeable divide of concerned expressions and unspoken fears that Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis frame in fretful, angular terms. The camerawork, in search of a stopping point that never arrives, succeeds in capturing the uneasy rhythms of the disease, the jarring shift from lulls of routine—radiation, chemotherapy—to rapid, frightening developments—diagnoses, prognoses—as surely as it does cancer’s queasy physicality.
“Miss You Already” is, at least, unafraid of the ugliness of cancer, an aspect of the illness too often obscured by flurries of pink ribbons or the noble language of “battles” and “fights.” To see the debilitating effects of Milly’s treatment is to acknowledge that reassuring words and symbols, like the lock of Milly’s hair that Miranda keeps after the wig fitting, are not always aimed as squarely at the afflicted themselves as we sometimes like to think.
And yet the film perpetrates the very same act of abstraction to which its depiction of cancer treatment seems so resistant, preferring the universal to the specific, the archetypal to the unique. By the time Jess and Milly reach their moment of reckoning, on the stormy moors of “Wuthering Heights,” no less, there has been minimal investment in the sort of rich characterization that buoys Emily Brontë’s Gothic romance, and so the affecting final act appears to be as much result of the subject matter as of the film’s limited strengths.
“Try saying no to someone with cancer,” Jess ventures, realizing that she mistook a sense of obligation for genuine connection. It’s a feeling the viewer of the heartfelt but ultimately unconvincing “Miss You Already” will know all too well.
“Miss You Already” opens in theaters Nov. 6.