Decoding Annie Parker: Where It Hits and Misses the Mark on Portraying the Breast Cancer Experience

Chilling with my definitely worn down mom. Photo courtesy of author.
For the most part, every week I’m the one that single-handedly brainstorms topics to write about. However, to repeat a consistent theme I hope to exemplify, this blog isn’t so much for me as it is for all of you, the readers, that have something to offer, share, and experience through this blog, as breast cancer unfortunately is a disease that impacts virtually all of us in one way or another. That said, about two months ago a friend of mine from Miami asked me if I could review a movie that she saw on Netflix. This week I’m going to talk about that movie, but before I do I just really want to emphasize again how much I honor when you all reach out to me with suggestions on what to write about.

The movie I’m going to review today, Decoding Annie Parker, is a drama that was released in 2013. The movie is based on the “mostly true” story of two women, Annie Parker and Dr. Mary-Claire King. Annie Parker is an otherwise ordinary woman based in Toronto, with the exception of having a family history riddled with breast cancer deaths. She too becomes diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age and becomes obsessed with discovering why her family is cursed with cancer. Her story is concurrent with Mary-Claire King, based at UC Berkeley, who is fighting a strenuous uphill battle in discovering the genetic linkages of breast cancer. Annie discovers Mary-Claire during her pursuit for answers and she starts writing her letters. Eventually their paths cross and they both gain something from valuable from their otherwise distant relationship. 

As a whole the movie was not particularly my favorite in terms of cinematic quality. Granted, it’s got a pretty decent cast, Helen Hunt, Aaron Paul, Rashida Jones, Maggie Grace, and Corey Stoll, to name a few. But I felt like the movie was trying too hard to advance the plot and some of the acting felt forced as a result. I probably wouldn’t watch the movie again, to be totally honest. And since the movie has a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 6.3 out of 10 stars on IMDB, I don’t think I’m alone in my sentiment. 

Regardless, I’m not a movie critic. Everyone’s a critic I guess is how the saying goes, but I know for certain I’m not a movie critic, so make no mistake that’s not what this post is about. What I care about is how breast cancer is portrayed to the general public. Even though the movie isn’t a new release, it is easily accessible on Netflix, and it’s still pretty recent. So my question is, where is this movie hitting the mark on showcasing not just this movie plot, but the entire breast cancer experience, to the average American viewer? And where does it fail? And as I hope the photo for this week’s post shows, I would like to draw from my own personal experience and perceptions of breast cancer since after all, that’s kind of what my friend wanted me to do. So that’s what I want to talk about today, so for starters let’s talk about what it does well. 

1) Revealing sexism in the medical field 

Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise for me about this whole movie was how much the film focused on highlighting the underplayed sexism in the medical industry. Keep in mind that the movie is set between the 1970’s – 1990’s, so I’d like to imagine the field is more equitable now (although I am confident there is still no even playing field for women in any industry, but I digress). But the movie talks about how female doctors are considered less fitting for funding, how breast cancer is downplayed by male doctors touting their prestigious medical degrees and lab coats, and how old white men have built their careers and medical expertises in breast cancer so therefore only they know best. It all contributes to a larger theme of women lacking a voice and being taken seriously about their struggle, pain, and suffering. And having witnessed personally the sexism not in medicine, but in academia and research, since as quick background I almost pursued a PhD before ultimately turning it down (another fun story), I give that much more power to Mary-Claire and her research team for being empowered to conduct research on the BRCA1 gene and give the middle finger to the glass ceiling they faced. 

2) Demonstrating how breast cancer strains relationships 
Breast cancer survivors are kind of romanticized in breast cancer walks and breast cancer donation campaigns as being victorious and all smiles. But as I’ve especially learned from the courageous breast cancer bloggers I’ve discovered that have opened their hearts, minds, and souls online, breast cancer takes its toll. Romantic relationships often suffer somehow, women with breast cancer may ask themselves like Annie did, am I being selfish? Am I being considerate of my partner’s needs? Quick spoiler alert, Annie and her husband separate, and that’s obviously a bit more of an extreme circumstance, but it’s not implausible. Romantic urges are not being met, and the reality is not every partner will be understanding of their loved one with breast cancer, or vice versa. And then for women with families, man that’s a lot too. From what I can tell, my mom had regrets, fears, and doubts for not having been there as much for me. Kids aren’t clueless, they pick up on their mother’s peculiar behavior and extended periods of absence. Obviously I’m older and can totally come to grips with what happened, but it was interesting to see in the film Annie’s somewhat tumultuous relationship with her son. Cancer in general is messy and it definitely impacts a person’s home life. 

3) Showing the ugly parts of breast cancer 

I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying this, but if I can be candid, breast cancer isn’t pretty. You lose your hair, throw up from chemo, lose weight or gain weight rapidly, undergo sometimes not even just breast surgery, but other intensive operations. And then it’s the little things, like your nails becoming brittle or discolored from chemo, your body is swollen in places you never imagined could be swollen, your energy levels fade in and out, and your skin just loses its natural glow. It’s awful, and that’s kind of the point. One of my biggest, excuse me, bitches about the breast cancer awareness movement is how it’s kind of danced around the ugly parts of breast cancer, when in reality that’s kind of part of the overall lived experience women have with the disease.  And this movie doesn’t shy away from that. Annie is shown spontaneously barfing multiple times, she’s shown with frazzled thin hair on an otherwise bald scalp. In perhaps one of the most intense scenes of the movie, you see her looking at her reflection in the mirror in the middle of the night, curiously examining the scarring from her removed left breast. The film does not shy away from making Annie look like she has breast cancer, which for that I appreciated. Personally, I don’t think any movie could ever truly show a woman’s physical experience with breast cancer, but I think this comes pretty close. 

4) Personifying the concept of death 

Facing death is without a doubt an underplayed component of the breast cancer experience. At one point or another, when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s forced to to think about her own mortality. We all would react to death in different ways, but what I like about the movie is how the concept of death is personified as its own character. In the beginning of the film, Annie is talking with her sister, who also later dies of breast cancer, about death hiding in their mom’s bedroom. Their mom had already died of breast cancer, and Annie’s older sister tells her that death hides in there, waiting to escape. Annie continues to be afraid of that room, and when the door is accidentally opened later in the movie by her new boyfriend, she panics. I think we all have a tendency to refer to death as a person because it helps us cope with cancer. I remember my fiancé has a loved one that recently came down with cancer, and him and I were talking one night about he just didn’t know how to express his deep sadness, anguish, fear, and anger about the disease. I told him, cancer sucks for that reason because you can’t yell at it, you want to but it’s not like a car accident where you can go out and yell at someone. It’s a faceless horror that can bring about death. And so for that, the portrayal of death in the movie resonated with me. It reminds me of how I feel my mom was stolen from me by cancer, by death, this sickening and yet natural demon we all encounter with any kind of cancer. 

OK, so those are the themes of the movie that I felt resonated with me. Now, here are my critiques. 

1) Having ‘the talk’ with your child 

To clarify here, when I mean ‘the talk,’ I don’t mean the infamous ‘birds and the bees’ sex talk, I mean the ‘I have [breast] cancer’ talk that a parent to some degree is obligated to have with their children. In Decoding Annie Parker there’s a scene where after her initial breast cancer diagnosis, she has a conversation with her young son about having breast cancer. He asks her if she’s going to die like his auntie (AKA her sister who like I mentioned, already died from breast cancer) and she tells him that she’s not going to die, that she will beat breast cancer. It was, in my opinion, an overly cliched talk. Having been the child, granted under slightly under circumstances, death wasn’t something I thought about right away. I just couldn’t comprehend my mom dying, it wasn’t a thought that could pass through my mind. I just knew mommy was sick sometimes. And in fact, it wasn’t event my mom that had ‘the talk’ with me, it was my dad. He explained to me one night when I was lying in bed about how the bad cells were making mom very sick. It wasn’t until the week before she died did I really start to realize my mom was  well, dying. So I wouldn’t have ever just looked at my mom all astonished like and ask her “are you going to die?” It’s just not realistic child behavior, in my opinion. And the talk as as a whole just felt forced, like it was scripted, and I don’t think a talk like that is scripted, it’s again messy and complicated and quite honestly, scarier than what is shown in the movie.

2) Finding your purpose to ‘beat’ breast cancer 

An over-arching theme throughout the whole movie is how Annie overcomes and ‘beats’ breast cancer time and time again because she has something greater, something bigger than herself, to believe in. She believes in genetics, and chromosomes, and scientific inquiry to resolve the greater arching questions in her life. She compares herself to her ex-husband that passes away from cancer, and says the reason he died but she didn’t is because he didn’t believe in anything. Aaaaand, that’s when I insert my screeching sound effect of a record player coming to a halt. Hold up. That whole mantra of not only the breast cancer survivor, but the overall cancer survivor experience, is bullshit. I can say for a fact that my mom believed in a lot of things greater than herself. She believed in her family, and more specifically my brother and I. She wanted to see us grow up for as long she could. And she believed in God. My mom, especially during her bouts with breast cancer, was a devout Catholic, the kind of woman that rarely missed church on Sunday and insisted to read us biblical passages at night. My mom was a passionate woman, so don’t tell me she died because she didn’t believe in anything. And even if you’re an atheist, or have no kids, whatever, that doesn’t mean you’re incapable of finding something to believe in greater than yourself. But OK, the fundamental point of this is I hate the idea that mental strength means everything for surviving or ‘beating’ breast cancer. Yes, cancer is a mental game, and I’m convinced my mom’s mental fortitude helped her stay alive as long as she did. She outlived the expectations of her doctors. But mental strength isn’t everything, breast cancer can kill you, and I will never say that my mom ‘lost’ her ‘battle or stopped believing in a reason to stay alive. Cancer just killed her; she could only prevail for so long. And that doesn’t make her a weak person, or anyone with that story a weak person. Annie isn’t any better or stronger than someone like my mom. 

3) Overdoing the sex jokes 

OK, I don’t mean to sound like a prude here, I can handle the sex humor in the movie and the whole idea of discussing sex within the narrative of the breast cancer experience. That’s all totally valid. But in my opinion, they overdo the sex jokes in the film, and kind of beat a few repeated jokes to death. And I would let that go, I debated mentioning it at all in this week’s post, but here’s what pushed me over the edge. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the director of the movie Stephen Bernstein (which with all due respect, I really wish a woman had directed this movie for several reasons, but I’ll shut up about that for now) mentions that the movie simply could not be as tragic as Annie’s life because otherwise “it’s not going to get people to come to theaters.” And that line right there makes me want to well, flip the bird, at the director. I get it, he has a bottom line to meet, it’s called the movie business for a reason. But aren’t American viewers all about the unsung hero, tragedy, and drama? Why did he find it necessary to give us the Annie Parker light version in his film? Where’s the deep human anguish, turmoil, that helped Annie rise from the ashes and become the inspiration she is to so many today? I’m sorry, but that’s such a dude move add unnecessary sex jokes to make something approachable. Give me a break. 

Have you watched Decoding Annie Parker? Do you agree with my thoughts about the movie? Drop me a note here or send me your comments on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter! And if you have any suggestions for books, movies, or something else you’d like me to review, send me a DM or email me at graceslawskiwriting@gmail.com 

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