Written by Adam Bernstein, Steven Bernstein, and Michael Moss
Directed by Steven Bernstein
The new film Decoding Annie Parker was made with the most honorable intentions, and unfortunately, very little else. In many respects, the story could just as well have been a movie-of-the-week from the early 1990s on either one of the Big Three networks or Lifetime. It covers a hot-button issue, is female-centric, has a large cast full of actors who are mostly recognizable from various TV shows, and feels like a snapshot of life instead of an immersion. Tackling the topic of breast cancer by looking at its genetic background is, perhaps, an interesting avenue to pursue, but Decoding Annie Parker lacks depth throughout.
Samantha Morton stars as Annie, who defines her life in an opening quote as a joke, and in some dark way, she’s not wrong: when she’s a girl, her mother dies of breast cancer. As she grows up in Toronto, the rest of her family dies at early ages, from her father to her vivacious sister (Marley Shelton). At a too-young age, Annie marries a wannabe musician (Aaron Paul) and quickly gets pregnant. She fears, not illogically, that because her mother and sister both died of breast cancer, she’ll get a similar diagnosis soon. Though a doctor pooh-poohs this fear, Annie’s soon proven correct. Instead of lying back and letting cancer ravage her insides, Annie decides to educate herself, with the help of a friendly nurse (Rashida Jones) and doctor (Corey Stoll). In doing so, she learns of a research geneticist, Mary Claire King (Helen Hunt) who believes that the key to breast cancer is in the human genome, much to the doubt of some benefactors and colleagues.
You might think that the characters played by Hunt and Morton will have to intersect at some point–the movie opens, very disjointedly, as the two women meet after a speech the geneticist gives in the early 1990s. But you would be mostly wrong; the film is primarily Annie’s, and she narrates her sections. Thus, when co-writer and director Steven Bernstein cuts from Annie’s plight to Mary Claire’s fight in the world of science, it’s to essentially give the audience a break from the main plot to wade into a subplot. But here’s the problem with this storytelling choice: the more interesting story is Mary Claire King’s.
No doubt, Annie Parker’s life has been marred by familial tragedy, by funerals and divorces, by the cosmically cruel removal of an entire support system. But Annie’s struggle is inherently less dramatic; the in medias res opening coupled with her voiceover narration makes one thing clear: no matter what struggles she has, she does survive long enough to talk with Mary Claire King. King, on the other hand, has so little time to make an impact as a character, despite her work being vastly more important to the world. Arguably, her work barely makes an impact on Annie in a tangential way as opposed to offering some kind of spiritual victory.
These are the issues you have to focus on while watching Decoding Annie Parker, after moving on from the superficial. To wit: this entire film is a period piece, mostly set during the 1970s and early 1980s. Even if there wasn’t a heaping helping of superimposed captions–very few offer any necessary information, instead simply repeating that one scene takes place in 1976 even though the previous scene opened similarly–you wouldn’t be able to ignore the period trappings. It’s hard to say, but even if you weren’t familiar with the previous work of actors like Aaron Paul and Corey Stoll, you’d know they were wearing the most hopelessly fake wigs during their scenes. (When we first meet Paul’s character, he’s in a post-Woodstock hippie phase, which means that he’s wearing an incredibly long wig that, at no point, looks like it’s even remotely attached to his scalp.) The hair and makeup issue is especially baffling when it relates to supporting players. For example, Ben McKenzie plays one of King’s fellow researchers and, in his first scene, is wearing some kind of piece to emphasize, again, that the scene is taking place in the 1970s. But in later scenes–and he’s in the movie for maybe 10 minutes–his hair looks like his own, not a fake. Why waste a wig for one scene?
It’s obvious that Decoding Annie Parker is a labor of love, and it’s equally obvious that the work Mary Claire King did in the field of the human genome is massively important to women worldwide. So it’s frustrating that the film about this work, and about one of the many women who had to deal with the pain of being genetically set up to get breast cancer, doesn’t rise above being well-intentioned, mawkish melodrama. It’s still too rare for a modern movie to be female-centric, making Decoding Annie Parker all the more vexing. This film should be an excellent depiction of the struggle women have faced surrounding breast cancer. This movie has good intentions and an extremely talented cast, but unfortunately, that’s all it has.
– Josh Spiegel