In the overwrought kids-with-terminal-illness genre, Ways to Live Forever manages to stand tall on strong performances and a story that wonderfully brings out the precociousness of its main character. Based on a book by Sally Nicholls, the movie is about 12 year old Sam (Robbie Kay) who tries, with the help of his friend Felix (Alex Etel), to balance living and dying. As expected, it works the tear ducts but does so in an atypically unshowy way.
Sam records a video diary, partly for posterity but mostly just for the hell of it, in which he details facts about himself and his family and, when the occasion merits, his illness. His nonchalance about his leukemia is preferable to the self-awareness of teen protagonists in similarly themed films (ahem, The Fault in Our Stars). There’s nothing pretentious about Sam’s on-camera addresses, and in one entry, he explains his cancer and the side effects of his medicine with the same matter-of-factness as a kid showing off his ant terrarium.
The film tries for a lot of honesty but without the attention seeking cynicism. Felix, who is a little older than Sam and also has cancer, brings a more worldly perspective to the friendship and often has a sarcastic remark at the ready, especially when the two are taking lessons from their tutor (Greta Scacchi). But while death backgrounds their actions and relationships, they are content to live it up and tick as many things as they can off their bucket list. In his exhausting sprint to, among other things, do teenager stuff, Sam gets some help from Felix who in turn enlists his cousin (Ella Purnell). The preteen romance is treated with the lightest touch, and the film seems as doggedly determined as the boys are to chase down a good time.
There isn’t a surprise ending to this though, and the levity of childhood is weighed down by Sam and Felix’s illnesses. Still the film maintains a balanced tone, and that’s largely thanks to its lead actors. Etel has charmed me before in Millions and The Water Horse, and while he’s older and no longer cherub-faced in this movie, he’s still has an earnest expressiveness. Kay, meanwhile, has a child’s sense of bemused wonder, and sometimes boredom and anger. His character happily zooms the wrong way up an escalator, but when he gets bad news about his leukemia, he stubbornly insists that doctors not try to soft-pedal the delivery.
The friendship between Sam and Felix gets more attention in the first and second acts of the movie, but the focus eventually shifts to Sam’s family. The film tries not to be too heavy-handed here, just as his parents try to hold back and let their child live a normal life. When they do come to the fore, however, Ben Chaplin delivers a powerful performance as Sam’s reserved father. The actor is a master at conveying the deepest emotions in the quietest manner and does so again as a father who can’t seem to figure out how to express the enormity of his love. By contrast, Sam’s mother doles out her affection in small measures. She’s a static character, giving Emilia Fox less to work with, but the actress still adds to the emotional richness of a picture that does its best to keep its grief simple.
Prod: Martyn Auty
Dir: Gustavo Ron
Writer: Sally Nicholls, Gustavo Ron
Cast: Robbie Kay, Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox, Eloise Barnes, Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Natalia Tena, Ella Purnell
Time: 91 min
Country: United Kingdom