A fact-based story of medical science and personal tragedy - and perseverance - Decoding Annie Parker stars Samantha Morton as a woman whose world is haunted by death. First her mother succumbs to cancer, then her father. A close bond with her older sister (Marley Shelton) - as little girls they walked and talked, and balked at going into the room upstairs where a bogeyman dwelled - ends with her death, too.
"My life was a comedy," the real-life Parker is quoted at the movie's start. "I just had to learn to laugh."
Breast cancer killed Parker's sister and their mother (and grandmother), and it is breast cancer that she, too, must confront, in this earnest endeavor drawn from "actual events." The film tracks the title character from her Toronto childhood in the early '60s to the 1990s, and the landmark discovery that concludes the film.
That would be the identification by a team of researchers headed by Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) of the breast cancer gene BRCA1. Decoding Annie Parker, directed by Steven Bernstein, is bookended with a scene in which the valiant survivor played by Morton finally meets King. Over the years, Parker had written long, detailed letters to the UC Berkeley geneticist, sharing her plight and details of her family history. Parker, whose formal education ended at high school, embarks on her own research, becoming obsessed with breast cancer and its possible causes. When she has to undergo surgery, and chemotherapy, she loses her hair - then loses her husband, a swimming pool cleaner and rock-and-roller played by Aaron Paul.
Decoding Annie Parker is a movie about resilience, about staring doom straight in the face - with a smile, with hope. Morton's characteristic wistfulness makes her character's dogged good humor feel somehow more real, not less, and the performances by Shelton, by Hunt, by Alice Eve (as Parker's sister's best friend) imbue the film with a heft the disease-of-the-week script can't always support.
Decoding Annie Parker **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Steven Bernstein. With Samantha Morton, Aaron Paul, Marley Shelton, Alice Eve, Helen Hunt. Distributed by eOne Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: AMC Neshaminy and Video on Demand.