Dr. Donna Copeland’s
SAMANTHA MORTON HELEN HUNT AARON PAUL BRADLEY WHITFORD RICHARD SCHIFF RASHIDA JONES
DECODING ANNIE PARKER
“My life was a comedy; I just had to learn how to laugh,” is the opening quote from Annie Parker, a three time cancer survivor. Decoding Annie Parker feels like exactly that: more of a process or a history channel narrative than a feature film. Writer/director Steven Bernstein makes his directorial debut with not only difficult subject matter, but a very procedural film. Filled to the brim with talented actors and a brave performance from Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet & Lowdown), it never becomes as emotionally engaging as other films like Stepmom or One True Thing.
Following the death of her grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister, Annie Parker begins to suspect that it isn’t just mere coincidence that most of the females in her family have died from breast cancer. “I’m really scared it’s inside of us, in all our family.” After recovering from her own bout with breast cancer, Parker begins obsessively studying genes and trying to figure out the connection. Dr. Mary-Claire King (Hunt) also believes there is a correlation, but in the 80’s no one was willing to fund or believe her. Continuing her tireless research, King discovers exactly what she has always known.
Annie Parker’s story is a marvelous and miraculous one; here is a woman who had everything against her, and each time cancer came knocking, or her family fell apart, she chose to beat it. The film does a good job at chronologically explaining the bullet points of Parker’s life as Morton goes through formidable body and hair changes in and out of chemotherapy and trying to remain a mother and a wife. Morton has proved again and again that she is a powerhouse actress, and this should be one of her most memorable performances. However, this is also a film that most people won’t watch because of the difficult subject matter and the small advertising budget.
The editing and continuity problems are probably the biggest hindrances to the film. It seems to run longer than the screen time suggests. Hunt’s segment of the picture is minor, and when we do finally get one scene with the two leading ladies, while emotional, it doesn’t last long enough. Aaron Paul (Hellion) is also fairly good here as the pool man and rocker husband. One of the film's themes is the importance of faith, or “faith in anything,” as Parker suggests. We see someone with cancer losing everyone around her continue to have faith and forgiveness.
Final Thought – Feels more procedural than it does emotional.
By: Dustin Chase
Decoding Annie Parker is an unusual story about a real geneticist who worked doggedly for years (1974-1990) to identify what she believed was a genetic factor in the incidence of breast/ovarian cancer. The film parallels some of her experiences with those of Anne Parker, a real woman whose mother and sister died of breast cancer before her own was diagnosed, and the story in the film is mostly hers. The two women meet briefly in the film; however, even though each woman’s story is based on real women, the two never actually met in real life. Helen Hunt plays the part of Marie-Claire King, the scientist, and Samantha Morton plays Anne Parker, or Annie, as she is known in the movie.
The film shows King working diligently in her lab and facing a considerable amount of skepticism from her genetics colleagues. We see a segment showing a discouraging moment when she is denied funding from a source to which she has applied. This is especially poignant in that, in actuality, King’s discovery is considered one of the most important in the 20th Century.
Meanwhile, Annie is befriended by a young doctor in her clinic, who takes an interest in informing her about ongoing research into the genetics of cancer, and she is so intrigued, she becomes—in the words of a friend—“wacky obsessed.” Annie is married to an aspiring musician who has to earn money by cleaning and maintaining swimming pools. Paul (Aaron Paul) is pretty self-focused, and ill-equipped to deal with cancer. This part of the story is reflective of what often occurs in families when the wife/mother is diagnosed with cancer, especially when she has radical surgery, and the husband is not equipped for the care-giving role.
The film alternates between the stories of these two women—the one a scientist trying to make her mark and the other an intelligent, curious woman going through the heartbreak of cancer. There are moments of insight and clarity, for instance, when Annie is grieving for her sister, she observes the odd things many people say to those who are in mourning.
Other times, the film presents rather stereotypical behaviors of men and women. The men are not treated especially well; Paul, Mr. Allen (King’s colleague), and most doctors come across as insensitive and weak. Women are presented as overly self-deprecating; Annie refers to the DNA models she has put many hours into as “Mommie’s silly things.”
For the most part, however, Decoding Annie Parker (which cleverly refers both to understanding Annie and decoding her DNA) gives a fairly realistic picture—as gruesome as it is—of the cancer experience and its effects on families. The filmmakers (Steven Bernstein is the Director) were innovative in juxtaposing the research aspects with the personal aspects of cancer. It is surprising to learn that they did not contact King before making the film; in fact, she learned about it coincidentally from one of her students (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/as-helen-hunt-plays-her-in-a-movie-the-real-mary-claire-king-still-studies-breast-cancer/2013/10/28/7cd9033c-2218-11e3-966c-9c4293c47ebe_story.html, interview by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, The Washington Post, 10/28/2013.) After she saw the film, King noted that “I was not consulted on the science, of course, and to be honest, it is not presented as clearly or as interestingly as it could have been. It’s a bit of a lost opportunity.” Indeed. With all the money studios spend on films, one would think they would take the trouble to get a little bit of consultation from the experts.