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17 September 2012

"There Must Be Some Upsides to Terminal Illness"

Now Is Good, Ol Parker's new film based on Jenny Downham's novel Before I Die, could so easily have  been a melodramatic, maudlin mess. 17-year-old Tessa Scott (Dakota Fanning) has been battling a form of leukaemia for the past four years and figures that now is a good time as any to make a start on her bucket list. Helped by her best friend Zoey (Kaya Scodelario), she sets to work on experiencing as many "moments" as she can--this being Brighton, many of which include the holy trinity of bucket lists, sex, drugs and/or rock and roll. But she soon realises that sleeping with some thoughtless oik she has picked up in a club just to tick "losing virginity" off her list isn't the kind of moment she is going for.

Tess's father (a brilliant Paddy Considine) would, if she weren't already dying, be killing her with his kindness. He is constantly searching the internet for a cure--a way out--and feels increasingly frustrated and powerless as he has to pick his daughter up from a police station or chide her for embarrassing him on local radio. He and Tess's mother (Olivia Williams) are separated--it's unclear from the film whether her flakiness and apparent alcohol issues began before or after Tess's diagnosis. She loves her daughter but is frightened and leaves most of the parenting to Mr Scott. Meanwhile, little brother Cal, who is nine, often feels jealous of the attention Tess gets. His comments wouldn't sound out of place in an episode of Outnumbered ("when Tess is dead, can we go on holiday again?"), but Tess appreciates the gallows humour and the remarks generated some dark chuckles from the audience. We get a moment of levity--a break from the awfulness of it all.

Meanwhile, Tessa forms a close relationship with her sad but sensitive neighbour Adam (Jeremy Irvine). He knows she's ill, but she doesn't want him to know just how bad the prognosis is, so they tentatively go on motorbike rides and skim pebbles into the sea and crash house parties, and pretend things are OK. Tess's father doesn't want them to get too close; he thinks Adam is too young to be someone's carer, and isn't convinced the boy is committed to his daughter, but they carry on seeing each other regardless. There are also the inevitable moments of "gazing up into the stars together" and "huddling together on a bench while the snow falls", but just when you think the film is roaming too far into cheesiness, the cliché is subdued by a joke or a sarcastic quip. In fact, although there are, of course, plenty of tears in the final act (because, well, aren't there always?), there are also plenty of laughs along the way. But back to the tears. Now Is Good is a weepie, there is no getting around that. Most of the audience of the preview I attended this evening were in tears when they left--and no, they weren't all women.

As well as the sharp script and dark humour, the other thing that keeps Now Is Good from straying too far into melodrama territory is the performances. Fanning is fine as Tess, injecting enough punch and vigour into the character's feistier moments, while also capturing her fears and her pain. It's Considine who steals the show, though. There is one scene in particular where the family have received some bad news and while Tess has got through her rage and has regained some composure, Considine's heartbroken, heartfelt sobbing as the gravity of the situation and his own sense of uselessness become clear is devastating. Williams, playing against type, with her bad, blonde dye-job and her instability, was good too.

For some reason, I thought Jenny Downham's book was autobiographical (I thought the associate producer credit I spotted was a tribute), and I wonder if I would have viewed the film differently if I had known it was fictional; maybe I'm just being too cynical about the cynicism of others. Either way, despite being uneven in places and not the most original film in the world, Now Is Good is good, though not great. Do bring tissues, though.

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