The Phoenix Zine

Movies Featuring Characters Dealing With Chronic Illness


Ahh, movies. Growing up I found myself looking for people who had simillar life experiences as me in the movies I watched. It took me a while to find movies with characters I found real and encouraging in dealing with chronic illness.

The following is a list of movies compiled mainly from my own collection featuring such characters. The links below are incase you would like to purchase any of these movies for your own viewing pleasure.

Alex: The Life of a Child – A true story about a girl named Alex Depford (Lindsay Amelio and Gennie James) who has Cystic Fibrosis. The movie chronicles Alex’s short but powerful life at a time when the life expectancy for those with Cystic Fibrosis was bleak.

The Cure – Dexter (Joseph Mazzello) is an 11 year-old boy dealing with AIDS. Stigmatized by public fear of AIDS, he slowly makes friends with his neighbour Eric (Brad Renfro). As their friendship grows, they decide to find the cure for Dexter’s AIDS. This movie is now available on Netflicks.

Garden State – Sam (Natalie Portman) has epilepsy and meets Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) in a neurologist’s waiting room. Sam and Andrew get to know each other and Sam shares some of her personal challenges, teaching Andrew the value of allowing yourself to feel, whether it is joy or sadness.

Jack – Loosely based on Progeria and Werner Syndrome, Jack Powell (Robin Williams) has the appearance of a 40 year-old man when he is only 10. Fed up with being homeschooled and isolated, Jack decides he wants to go to a public school and make friends of his own.

Little Women (1994 version) – Beth (Claire Danes), contracts scarlet fever while caring for an underprivileged family. The story is set in 1868 when medicine was more limited so instead of recovering fully she develops rhuematic fever and then congestive heart failure. Of the four March sisters, Beth is the one who never marries and never leaves home. She leads a quiet life, but is content to love her family and play a supportive role to them.

Mask – True story about a teenager named Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz) who was born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia (aka Lionitis). Despite being warned repeatedly of his impending death, Rocky lives his life as he wants to, going to high school, working at a summer camp, and falling in love with Diana Adams (Laura Dern) who deals with blindness.

Princes in Exile – Ryan Rafferty (Zachary Ansley) has a brain tumour and less than a year to live. He is understandably angry and bitter, especially when his parents send him to a summer camp for youth with cancer. Over the course of the summer he works on two goals: writing a journal to be published, and losing his virginity. Note: This is a National Film Board of Canada movie which means you should look for it in your public library first if you want to watch it.

Return to Me – Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), a woman experiencing heart failure, needs a heart transplant to save her life. Grace ends up receiving the heart of Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson), the previous wife of widower Bob Rueland (David Duchovny). A year after her transplant and Elizabeth’s death, Grace meets and falls in love with Bob. Also available on Netflicks.

The Terry Fox Story – Just to be clear, this is the 1983 tv movie about Terry Fox, not the 2005 tv movie called Terry. Another movie based on a true story, Terry (Eric Fryer) is a young man who at age 18 had his leg amputated to prevent the spread of ostoscarcoma. He planned and ran the Marathon of Hope, a run across Canada meant to raise money for cancer research.

Theory of Flight – Jane Hatchard (Helena Bonham Carter) is in the final stages of amytrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, when she meets Richard (Kenneth Branagh), a man forced to do community service while on probation for attempting to fly off a building. Richard is assigned to be Jane’s companion and after they get over their rocky start Jane confides her deepest wish to Richard – to lose her virginity before she dies.

To start your own list, I suggest you take a look at , and try out some of the movies under the secton Physical Illness/Medical Issues. Also there’s , an incredibly huge movie database where you can search for movies in many different ways, including by subject of the movie. I intend to post additions to this list, so feel free to leave a comment and tell me about the movies you like featuring characters dealing with chronic illness.


  1. The movie that came to mind first for me was The Other Sister. Although the two main characters do not suffer from a chonic illness, they are both mentally challenged.
    You can not help but feel the rollercoaster of emotions that both characters go through in this story. I laughed, I bawled my eyes out, but they both did such a great job at helping the audience experience the adventure that it was such a satisfying film.
    Although there are some characters in the film that doubt carla and Daniel (the main chatacters) there are many many supportive friends and family.
    Both Carla and Daniel look for independence and a sense of normalicy and become frustrated when people close to them do not let them experience life like a normal 20 year old.

    Another of my favorite movies is Rain Man.

  2. I just watched “Funny People” with Adam Sandler, and it’s a fairly new release that could be on this list. His character is George Simmons, a very well known comedian and actor. One day he finds out he has a rare form of leukemia and he has about an 8% chance of survival even if he endures some experimental treatments from another country (Canada actually!) The movie is filmed over the course of his processes of denial through to acceptance of his mortality, and it’s only when he realizes he’s going to die that he begins to understand how meaningless fame and riches actually are.

    It’s definitely worth watching.

  3. try my sisters keeper

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