Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum plays a woman suffering from ALS and her free-spirited companion in this drama based on Michelle Wildgen’s novel
Few actresses suffer so movingly onscreen as Hilary Swank, as the two-time Oscar winner proves once again in You’re Not You, based on the novel by Michelle Wildgen. Playing a classical pianist afflicted with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Swank delivers an emotionally and physically committed performance that significantly elevates the sometimes mawkish material. Well matched by Emmy Rossum as the directionless young woman who finds spiritual redemption while working as her assistant, Swank could well find herself competing in yet more award races.
Directed by theater veteran George C. Wolfe (Angels in America), the film details the burgeoning friendship between the gravely ill Kate (Swank) and Bec (Rossum), who at first seems highly unsuited for her new position. The two women are a study in contrasts: Kate is tightly wound and controlled, while Bec, a college student and aspiring singer/songwriter, is an emotional mess who can barely manage her chaotic life. Kate’s happy marriage to the highly successful Evan (Josh Duhamel), who lovingly cares for her, is a marked contrast to the free-spirited, drug taking Kate whose love life consists of a series of one-night stands, the most recent being with nice guy Will (Jason Ritter).
Bec is initially helpless at her job — showing up late, creating a mess in the kitchen, and barely managing to perform such distasteful tasks as helping Kate shower and go to the bathroom. But as her employer’s physical condition quickly deteriorates and her marriage begins to fall apart under the resultant strain, Bec becomes a fierce advocate and devoted companion, discovering a sense of responsibility that she never knew she had.
Shana Feste and Jordan Roberts’ screenplay effectively blends poignant drama and mordant humor in its depiction of the growing relationship between the two central characters, even if it’s less effective with such tangential subplots as Bec’s affair with her sleazy college professor (Julian McMahon, Nip/Tuck) and her romantic pursuit by the besotted Will. Depicted with admirable subtlety are Kate’s unraveling marriage to her husband who proves unfaithful but still retains an essential decency; her new friendship with an emotionally exuberant fellow sufferer of the disease (beautifully played by Loretta Devine) and her devoted husband (Ernie Hudson); and her growing estrangement from the friends she had in her former, pre-illness life.
Such moments as when Kate asks to hold a friend’s newborn baby with disastrous results prove intensely harrowing, even as she finds a newfound emotional looseness in response to her aide’s free-spirited attitude towards life. Director Wolfe handles the periodic shifts in tone with expertise, with only the scenes involving Frances Fisher and Marcia Gay Harden, playing Kate and Bec’s respective mothers, having an occasional forced quality.
Swank portrays her character’s physical decline with incredible detail, to the point where she becomes virtually unintelligible as Kate’s ability to speak becomes compromised. And although Rossum tends to overplay Bec’s wanton behavior in the opening scenes, she becomes increasingly effective as the character gradually settles down. Duhamel infuses intriguing grace notes into his portrayal of the wayward husband, while Ritter employs his natural charm to fine effect as the man desperate to be in Bec’s life.
You’re Not You isn’t entirely successful in avoiding a television movie-style predictability in its depiction of its central character’s incapacitating illness. But its superb performances and emotional complexity ultimately elevate its familiar themes.