Sleepy Time Gal

Few movies are enhanced by having a character die of cancer, but “The Sleepy Time Gal” pulls it off OK, largely because the development is not just a third-act attempt to wring tears from the audience, but is introduced in the beginning and is the driving force behind most of the action.

This melancholy, emotional film is about Frances (Jacqueline Bisset, doing outstanding work), who reevaluates her life after receiving news she has the disease. Her 20-year-old son Morgan (Nick Stahl), a sexually confused would-be photographer, is often weary of her and her humanitarian crusades. Her other son is estranged and lives in England. Her third child, a daughter, she gave up for adoption at birth. Now she wants to find her.

Meanwhile, we meet the daughter. She is Rebecca (Martha Plimpton), a lawyer whose life keeps almost crossing her mother’s. She visits a radio station in Florida where, by coincidence, Frances once worked as an on-air host. She tries to preserve the Manhattan neighborhood where her mother grew up.

She would like to find the identity of her birth mother as much as her birth mother would like to find her. The question is, will they find each other in time?

That’s really not the film’s biggest issue, though. Their meeting is no as important as their separate personal journeys, taking stock of their lives and finding peace within themselves. There is an interesting scene in which Frances visits her own mother, who is in poor health at a nursing home. Both women refuse help from each other, just as Rebecca — a third-generation stubborn woman — is as independent as she can be.

Jacqueline Bisset displays extraordinary humanity as Frances. Her rapidly declining health results not in melodrama or gushy sentiment but in genuine compassion. If anything, she underplays the illness, and it’s all for the better.

Nick Stahl is worthy of mention, too, as her son. His character is not fully developed, but what is there hints at an interesting set of possibilities.

B+ (; R, some harsh profanity, some racial slurs, very brief partial nudity.)