Sally Field's flawless performance as a mother whose imminent death reunites her four grown children elevates a fairly formulaic melodrama in the made-for-Lifetime mode into something considerably more memorable.
As Anita (Field) enters the final stages of cancer, her children assemble in southeastern North Carolina for the final days of her life: Oldest brother Keith (Ben Chaplin), a filmmaker, arrives from L.A. hoping his Zen, play-it-as-it-lays attitude will get him through, while Emily (Julianne Nicholson), Anita's only daughter and, for better or worse, her best friend, has turned to a manual entitled "How to Die" to help her mother and herself. Busy executive Barry (Tom Cavanagh), whom Anita always considered the "responsible one," can't cope and is counting on an upcoming business meeting in Singapore to save him from the family reunion/death watch. The last to arrive is youngest brother Matthew (Glenn Howerton) and his horrible, self-centered wife (Clea DuVall). With her strength failing, Anita attempts to tie up whatever loose ends she can, divvying up furniture none of her children really wants while a hospice nurse (Michael Hyatt) prepares her to die at home, equipping her with a nutritional IV and a morphine drip to help ease the pain. As Anita hangs on for longer than anyone expected, the house fills with casseroles from well-meaning friends, and Keith, Emily, Barry and Matthew busy themselves with the practical details of dying: closing out Anita's bank account, making plans for her cremation, contacting relatives about Anita's worsening condition. But their very different ways of coping with grief soon put them at odds with one another, while their determination to make all the decisions leaves Jim (James Murtaugh), Anita's second husband of 13 years, feeling shut out of his own wife's death.
Based on his experiences during his own mother's death, writer-producer-director Steve Stockman's first feature film is a heartbreaker, particularly for anyone who's lost a parent, and Field's uncompromising performance helps fill in Anita's blanks. Unfortunately, there's not much she can do for the underwritten children: In the end we know what each feels or doesn't feel without being exactly sure who any of them are. The narrative is structured around clips from a videotape Keith made earlier in his mother's illness, in which Anita answers questions about her life, her regrets and each of her children. It's not the freshest device, but allows Field to remain in the picture long after Anita starts to make her exit. leave a comment --Ken Fox