‘Decoding Annie’ a bit clinical, but a showcase for actress

Samantha Morton, the fine and oddly underemployed British actress, won the Best Actress prize from the Seattle International Film Festival last year. Her performance is just now emerging for a regular run, as “Decoding Annie Parker” finally turns up in theaters.

The film is based on a true story about the search for the gene that causes breast cancer, and one woman’s experience with her cancer-riddled family. These parallel plots travel from the early 1970s to the recent past.

Morton plays Annie Parker, a young woman already anxious about cancer — her mother and sister (Marley Shelton) have contracted the disease. Eventually (this is not much of a spoiler) she is diagnosed with breast cancer herself; the struggle takes a toll on her marriage to a cheerful but immature musician (Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad,” quite good here).

Meanwhile, we occasionally skip to the story of cancer researcher Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt), a doctor working single-mindedly to establish a genetic source for breast cancer. She is of course opposed by the medical establishment, but has a devoted staff of just-quirky-enough assistants working for her. (The real Mary-Claire King now works at the University of Washington.)

I like what Helen Hunt does with this role; she plays the scientist as a severe taskmaster with no patience for anything other than the work. It’s nice to see a movie portray a heroic figure who isn’t cuddly.

The film’s main problem is going back and forth between these worlds. Believable as Samantha Morton is, Annie’s saga isn’t detailed enough to distinguish it from a thousand other stories (and I suppose that’s partly the point — she’s an Everywoman here). And we don’t spend enough time with the doctor to get truly invested in that side of the tale.

In his first feature as director, longtime cinematographer Steven Bernstein presents a steadfast if pokey narrative. Lots of good people fill out smaller roles, giving various scenes a little boost: Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Ben Mackenzie, and Rashida Jones all pitch in at various points.

A film about breast cancer need not seem like an illustrated lecture, and you can sense “Decoding Annie Parker” trying hard to avoid that. Frequent bits of humor lighten the mood; the only problem is they always feel like bits of humor intended to lighten the mood.

Still, you know, Samantha Morton. This performance isn’t in a league with her work in “Minority Report” or “Morvern Caller,” but she still makes unusual moments happen in the midst of simple scenes. If this brings her back to greater visibility, let’s have it.

“Decoding Annie Parker” (2 stars)

It’s a little too close to an illustrated lecture, but this film about a real-life cancer survivor (Samantha Morton) and an intrepid researcher (Helen Hunt) does try to put some humor and reality into the proceedings. Morton won the Seattle International Film Festival award for her performance.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Opening: Friday at Sundance Cinemas

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