When I was first diagnosed with lymphoma, I didn’t want to watch anything that had to do with cancer. But now that I’ve been through chemo, radiation, and a host of other medical procedures, I love to watch films that feature cancer as a plot point to see how they add up. These five films represent the good, bad, and the ugly of the “sobby cancer movie with a badly written romance” subgenre.
1. Love Story (1970)
Love Story is the OG of films employing the “hot-girl-gets-cancer-and-dies” plot device. Don’t let the title fool you– this movie is brutal. Shoutout to my mom for warning preteen me that Love Story was “really sad” before letting me watch it. She saw what happened when no one told me the plot of Titanic and she did not want to deal with that shit again.
The film takes two hot, young, talented people, sticks them in some ivy league college where they spend an hour traipsing around in the leaves where their main problem is that Oliver’s rich asshole dad doesn’t like Jenny because she is–gasp–MIDDLE CLASS! Now cut off from his WASP-y douchebag parents, Oliver is sentenced to the horrific, demeaning, incomprehensibly painful life of a Harvard law student without a trust fund. Things work out despite the fact that dad’s a jerk, and we applaud these two crazy kids as they try to make babies (but how will they pay for a nanny?!) We find out Jenny can’t get pregnant and will probably have to do something terrible like adopt a less fortunate child, until BAM. Cancer.
I have to give this film credit for bringing up the cancer bit so abruptly. Instead of giving us a solid hour or so to watch Jenny romantically wither away, we’re hit with the soul-crushing realization that cancer can happen at anytime to anyone with no explanation. However, there wasn’t nearly enough makin’ out for my tastes. B+.
2. My Sister’s Keeper (2009)
Don’t write this movie off because it looks too much like something you’d see on the Lifetime channel. This film has the potential to leave you in the kind of depression normally reserved for something serious, like that time you realized Trix aren’t shaped like fruit anymore. My Sister’s Keeper chronicles the life of a preteen girl who was genetically engineered to serve as an organ donor for her older sister, who suffers from leukemia. Cameron Diaz plays a painfully anxious mother who spends the majority of the film screaming at the younger daughter for no longer wanting to cut her organs out and give them to someone else. The nerve!
This film is the Sad Points Grand Prize Winner on the basis that just re-reading the plot on the Wikipedia entry made me cry like a big, blubbery idiot. I’ll also give My Sister’s Keeper some extra points for ruining my week with nothing more than a two minute long montage of Cameron Diaz flipping through a scrapbook. That’s some masterful storytelling. B-.
3. A Walk to Remember (2002)
Warner Bros Pictures
12-year-old-me handled this one a lot better than Love Story. I’m not sure why– maybe Mandy Moore’s Pentecostal dollhouse dresses make the cancer bit seem more cute than tragic? A Walk to Remember is fun because it starts off as your classic boy-meets-girl teen drama and ends up as a Grey’s Anatomy season finale. Landon is a hot popular boy (in an NSYNC, spiked hair kind of way) and Jamie is an intolerably “ugly” nerd. One day, Landon realizes that Jamie isn’t actually a disfigured dork– she’s been Mandy Moore all along! Landon scoops her up before all the other hot assholes wake up to the fact that a pop star is masquerading as a BIG OLE LOSER right under their noses. Great job, Landon!
But wait– Jamie is hesitant. What’s wrong? Her incredibly religious dad doesn’t let her date? That would be hardship enough for most teen movies, but the creators of A Walk to Remember yelled “HOLD MY BEER” before pulling the biggest reveal of all: Jamie isn’t weird because she thinks she’s too good for Landon. She’s weird because she has cancer.
Landon decides to make an honest woman of Jamie (after all, they have been holding hands a lot) and the two have a well-attended wedding at the ripe old age of 17. I’ll be honest: I teared up a little when I re-watched the wedding scene. It drags on for a painfully long time, so you really feel like you’re there. After the wedding, Jamie predictably passes away. The 2000s-era sobbing of pre-teen girls caused a disturbance in the force so intense that it can still be felt today. Props to this film introducing a whole generation to the sad, sexy world of Nicholas Sparks. Between this and The Notebook, we now know that power of love does not cure everything. A-.
Side note: I gave the trailer a watch recently. Nowhere in the trailer does the studio indicate that the movie is about a girl dying from cancer. Jesus Christ, Warner Bros.
4. A Little Bit of Heaven (2012)
A Little Bit of Heaven starts off normally enough. Marley is a fun-loving socialite (played by Kate Hudson) who lives in New Orleans. You can tell it’s New Orleans because of all the Mardi Gras beads and the fact that Kathy Bates lives there. Marley spends her time hanging out at bars, enjoying time with her friends, and dating casually. Somehow, this film manages to portray all of these activities as bad things, and punishes poor Marley with a big dose of colon cancer.
About fifteen minutes in, the movie begins to resemble a theme park catching on fire. Marley meets her future love interest (a hot doctor, because cancer movies love overlooking professional ethics) as he’s about to shove a camera up her butt during a colonoscopy. While she’s under anesthesia, she hallucinates that she’s in heaven where Whoopi Goldberg/God warns her that she’s dying soon and she better find her One True Love, like, really fast.
Marley has a gay best friend who attempts to hook her up with a mustachioed, kind of hot Peter Dinklage that results in a “joke” sex scene so uncomfortable I kept wishing they’d just start actually banging. The movie only goes downhill from there, which seems nearly impossible given that it starts off below sea level. Marley predictably falls in love with her hot doctor because Whoopi Goldberg told her told her to, and convinces her mom (Kathy Bates) to take care of her dog when she’s gone despite her mom’s terrible dog allergy. This manages to be the most legitimately touching scene in the film.
At the end, Marley’s doctor boyfriend shows up to her hospital bed to tell her he loves her, after which she immediately flatlines. Dead Kate Hudson and Whoopi Goldberg then sip champagne to the sounds of New Orleans jazz as all of Marley’s friends and family hold a second line in her honor. The main takeaway from this movie is that Whoopi would make a way more fun version of God than the one we all grew up with.
A few extra points for managing to make me cry despite being an all-around terrible film. D-.
5. 50/50 (2011)
The only reason I watched 50/50 is because I wanted to see what Joseph Gordon Levitt looked like with a shaved head (verdict: still hot). I didn’t expect to have all these feelings come out during the movie, but they emerged despite my best attempts to shove em back down. This film somehow manages to perfectly combine Seth Rogen’s hurr-durr pot humor (not that I’m above it) with a surprisingly lovely story. 50/50 was written by Will Reiser, a friend of Rogen’s and a survivor of a rare form of spinal cancer, so it really nails down what it’s like to go through cancer as a young adult. I won’t give away specifics, but there’s a lot of vomit involved. As a bonus, Anna Kendrick plays the role of a therapist who’s so cute you won’t be bothered by her questionable professional ethics.
I love 50/50 for showing that not all cancer patients die. In fact, 83% of children diagnosed with cancer will survive for more than five years. There are thousands of cancer survivors out there, and not all of them have adorable, quirky therapist-girlfriends or a Seth Rogen type buddy to help them out of their depression. This movie is great at portraying the kind of face-melting anger that overcomes you when you’re dealing with the aftermath of cancer treatment.
This film gets extra points for a soundtrack that could double as an “Angsty, but Horny” Spotify mood playlist. At one point, Joseph Gordon Levitt stares listlessly out a bus window while Radiohead’s “High and Dry” eats at your soul. What more could you ask for? A+ for documenting JGL’s character’s slow descent into moody stoner-dom.