Movies about cancer don't fall into one genre. Over the years, the idea of the "cancer movie" has taken different forms, from sentimental treacle (A Walk to Remember, My Sister's Keeper) to stories of teenage love and resilience (The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). For a moment, the "cancer comedy" was even en vogue, with Seth Rogen appearing in two: Funny People and 50/50.
Two movies in theaters this fall present altogether different takes on a movie about cancer, however, largely thanks to their focus on realism. Neither film sees anything sentimental about living with cancer. Instead, they save their emotion for the powerful relationships those with the disease have with the people around them.
Yet director Catherine Hardwicke's Miss You Already, in theaters now, and debut helmer Josh Mond's James White, out this weekend, actually share very little in common other than their subject matter and realism. Their approaches couldn't be more different, though they arrive at the same ultimate conclusion: Terminal disease isn't a poetic part of a personal narrative. It's just a tragic part of too many lives.
Miss You Already opens on a life about to enter the world. Drew Barrymore's Jess is close to giving birth. Missing from her side: her partner Jago (Paddy Considine), but perhaps even more importantly, her best friend Milly (Toni Collette). As the story flashes back, the film reveals the sad reason why — Milly is dying of cancer.
The movie doesn't linger on that sadness, though. Instead, it paints a portrait of Milly as a flawed woman who fights to survive with people who see all those flaws, but love her anyway.
"When she got cancer, she didn't become a saint or perfect," Hardwicke told Mic. Instead of canonizing her, the movie uses Jess to keep Milly honest. "She doesn't really take any bullshit. She does draw the line with her. ... She doesn't indulge or wallow in her self-pity with her."
Yet the movie never makes Milly the villain, either. The people around her are just as screwed up. Jess and Jago are on completely different wavelengths when it comes to having a child. Milly's relationship with her husband Kit (Dominic Cooper) is painfully strained by her treatment. Her mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset) is vain and harbors deep regrets about her relationship with her daughter.
"Every character was kind of human, and kind of a mess, and had their own issues," Hardwicke said. The key to Miss You Already is that none of them is defined by these flaws. Milly is not a cancer patient — she's a vivid, wild, confident woman who has cancer, looking to the people in her life to get her through it. "You find a way to laugh with it and cry with it, roll with the punches somehow," Hardwicke said.
There are few laughs in James White, Mond's semi-autobiographical statement. It's a gritty story about a young man, the titular James White (Christopher Abbott) struggling to figure out his own life after losing his father, while his mother Gail begins to fade too.
Mond's own mother dying of cancer served as the inspiration for the story, and Cynthia Nixon, a breast cancer survivor, stepped into that maternal role. She shared with Mond a very personal connection to the story.
"My mother had died of cancer that previous January," Nixon told Mic of choosing to take the role. "Obviously, the experience of that was very fresh in my mind. I talked to Josh about his mom and what she was like. ... I've seen a few people die in my life, over a period of time. Whenever you've experienced something, you're better able to recreate it."
James White is incredibly matter of fact about cancer. The difficulties of treatment are laid bare, particularly in one sequence that takes place over a single night. James has to figure out how to break his mother's fever with the few hospice resources available to him. It's harrowing in its intimacy. As Gail's condition worsens, the story refrains from romanticizing her passing as something meaningful.
"In our quest to make life seem meaningful or ultimately rewarding, sometimes we show suffering as redemptive," Nixon said. "Suffering can be redemptive, but it isn't always. One of the things that Gail's death brings to her son is that he does kind of pull through — for the moment. He's gained some maturity, but there's no sense that he's going to be able to sustain it.
That lack of sentimentality is what joins Miss You Already and James White, despite their radically different approaches otherwise. Through the laughs of the former and the misery of the latter, there's a shared desire to keep the story from becoming too traditionally cinematic.
In one particular scene in Miss You Already, Milly returns home from treatment and needs help brushing her teeth from her husband Kit. It was included because, as Hardwicke tells it, real survivors told the creative team about the experience. Played in the moment, however, it was too saccharine.
"I told Dominic, I said, 'Why don't you make some joke about how big her teeth are? Or how many teeth she has?'" she said. "To me, that made the scene perfect. ... It added another flavor, softened the sugar and mixed it all up. It didn't make it diabetically oversweetened."
To make Miss You Already sweet, or to make James White less intense, would be to make those movies easier to swallow. They'd also likely be lesser films. Hardwicke and Mond's willingness to portray cancer as it is in life, not as it is often depicted, lends their films a special resonance. There may be tears in viewers' eyes at the end, but they won't be earned off unearned sentimentality. They'll be from watching two fascinating women on deeply difficult personal journeys.