Science in films: Decoding Annie Parker

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually seen a film in a theatre; the appeal of lying in bed in front of a high-resolution laptop screen when I’m too tired to think, write or even read is too great. Especially in the chill of Nebraska nights.

A few such nights ago I found a brief synopsis for a film entitled “Decoding Annie Parker (2012),” which smacked of potential for the description of real-life scientists at work, even if only peripherally to the main story. And yes, “real-life” is the key, as this film is based on a true story (as opposed to Lab Lit).

The story weaves back and forth from the 2000s to the late 60s and 70s in the Toronto of one Annie Parker. Annie loses her mother to breast cancer at an early age, and her beloved older sister dies of the same malady when the two of them are only in their 20s. Sadly, Annie herself is later diagnosed with breast cancer and much of the film depicts her courageous fight to survive — but also her valiant attempts to promote the notion that her illness has a strong genetic composition.

In the film, Annie’s insistence that her illness was in some way related to that of her mother and sister was consistently met with admonishment from the medical establishment. We witness doctors maintaining that epigenetic causes – the water, the environment, etc. are the primary factors for familial cancers rather than genetics.

In parallel with the personal story of Annie Parker, the film follows the years of hard work by geneticist Mary-Claire King, a professor at the University of Washington, who with her lab identifies the BRCA1 gene whose mutation leads to greatly increased susceptibility of breast (and ovarian) cancer.

As a scientist, I found the lab sections somewhat less than compelling, although Helen Hunt did a superb job in her role as Mary-Claire King (see a 2 minute trailer). The lab personnel (unclear whether they were students, post-docs or technicians) were less believable, and their acting was — well, let’s just say, overdone. Fortunately, they have very minor roles overall.

It’s a shame, however, that a prime educational opportunity was missed in the film — not due to poor acting, but rather the directing. There is a scene where Dr. King explains how genetic inheritance is in some ways similar to a deck of cards — an analogy with potential for a layman audience. But the speed at which the explanation takes place made it difficult even for a non-layman to follow.

There is no question that this is a very moving film. However, despite humorous interludes from time to time — and the courage and sheer willpower that propels Annie to survive to this day (!) — watching this kind of film ensures that I sleep poorly for nights to come after viewing it. And perhaps that’s the point.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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