It’s easy to forget the dark ages — when women died in their thousands and the staid, male-dominated medical profession didn’t react with alarm and purpose in trying to figure out why, when geneticists wouldn’t roll up their sleeves to tackle something difficult and time-consuming that impacted mostly women, when computers took days, weeks and years to process data your laptop could crunch in a flash.
“Decoding Annie Parker” is about those dark years — the 1970s and early ’80s — when it took women, teams of them, to sort through medical histories, beg for funding and computer time and reach a conclusion that seems blindingly obvious, now.
Breast cancer is mostly genetic, stupid.
“Decoding” isn’t just a science biography and isn’t just “Breast Cancer: The Movie.” It tells the tragic story of a Canadian high school graduate who buried her mother and her sister, who knew her grandmother died from breast cancer, and couldn’t get doctors to admit that yeah, maybe she inherited the disease that takes her own breast years after she “knew this would happen.” The film tells Annie Parker’s story with heart and wit, and finds a few funny insights into the stubborn, brusque woman, Dr. Mary-Claire King, whose lonely quest to find proof would bear fruit.
Samantha Morton plays Annie, whose morbid sense of humor arrived at an early age.
“My life was a comedy. I just had to learn to laugh.”
She and her sister (Marley Shelton) grew up under a disease that dominated their youth thanks to their mother’s early death. They regard cancer as a monster, hidden in a room they never go into in the house they grew up in.
“Someday, he’ll get us, too.”
And when sister Joan dies of the same thing, Annie’s fears are confirmed. Her joyful, sex-filled “bad decision” life — she married a Toronto pool cleaner and musician (Aaron Paul, hilarious) — has a cloud hanging over it. She can find humor in funerals, but she is obsessed about what she knows is coming, not that the obsession makes that day she finds a lump any less wrenching.
King is a cold and charmless researcher who can’t convince donors to fund her search for genetic markers in breast cancer in 1970s Canada. Helen Hunt is perfectly cast, bringing the too-brilliant/too-impatient scientist to brittle life.
Kindly, patronizing male doctors tell Annie “Your family did have a bit of bad luck.” But she and Dr. King, whom she has never met, know better.
Eventually, a younger doctor and a sharply observant nurse (Rashida Jones, sassy-funny) join Annie in her quest to find clues, even as Dr. King finally gets together a team, the computer time and the money to crack this code. It takes years and years, with Annie going through the horrors of cancer and the nightmare of chemotherapy and surgery, never knowing when “the monster” will return.
Co-writer and director Steven Bernstein finds ways for Annie to lighten the glum mood this movie should have had, mainly through her wacky, sex-filled marriage. Aaron Paul, of “Breaking Bad” and “Need for Speed,” is an amusing essay in eye-linered, glam-rock slacker.
“Decoding Annie Parker” is an uplifting story, a generic medical drama that doesn’t transcend its TV movie “disease of the week” origins. But it does remember this history with wit, charm and heart. It’s “be willing to reject orthodoxy” ethos seems like a lesson that the medical profession needs to learn and relearn when dealing with patients. Unlike doctors, the sick take no comfort from the tried and failed orthodox way of treating what is killing them. They need people as desperate to find a cure as they are.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Cast: Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Aaron, Paul, Rashida Jones, Alice Eve, Maggie Grace
Credits: Directed by Steven Bernstein, written by Adam and Steven Bernstein and Michael Moss. An eOne release.
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