I have never been to Italy nor lost a close family relative to a terminal illness, but I do have a mother and, like her, I am a crier. Watching 18 Presents accompanied by my mother late at night on Mother’s Day was a recipe for disaster, especially when the real-life inspiration for the film is revealed. If you’re looking for something to turn your tear ducts into sprinklers and don’t mind reading subtitles, you’ve come to the right place.
The premise is this: Elisa (played by Italian actress Vittoria Puccini) is pregnant with a baby girl when she finds out that she has terminal cancer. Knowing that the progression of the illness would likely result in her dying during the child’s infancy, the mother-to-be decides to buy her unborn child 18 presents: one for every birthday until she becomes an adult. Sure, it might be hard to shop for someone you’ve never met, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Apparently not. Her now grown daughter, Anna (Italian actress Benedetta Porcaroli), actually hates these gifts from her mother, and her dad has to force her to open them, even as early as her 5th birthday. By 18, Anna has become a Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice) look-a-like with a far worse attitude and talent for self-destruction. I literally hated her. In the notes I made while watching the film, I wrote, “There is just no redeeming this character.” The biggest compliment I can give 18 Presents is that it proved me wrong: by the end, I forgave Anna, and couldn’t find it in me to hate her even the slightest. I remain impressed by this unexpected redemption.
As the plot progresses, and thanks to some extraordinary circumstances, Anna gets to meet her mother and relive the last few months of her life beside her. Thus, there are plenty of scenes of mother and daughter interacting whilst simultaneously longing for a past/future that will never occur. These moments are genuinely sweet and get you right in the feels. The ending had me sending twin waterfalls down my cheeks, not unlike the emoji titled “loudly crying face 😭” (though it should be noted that my tears were silently dignified and not noisy).
My quibbles are petty, but still I will quibble. First, I felt like Italy was another planet, or at least a world the Kardashians would find more relatable than I would. For instance, what would you do if you accidentally locked yourself out of your house? When I was growing up, that meant my Mom busted out the crowbar and boosted me through one of the windows so I could get in and unlock the door from the inside. I guess that makes me a trashy American, because this film would have you believe that the only sensible thing to do when locked out is rent a penthouse for the night, complete with a pool, and simply wait until morning to call a locksmith. Second, when Elisa is in her cancer support group, her suggestion of buying eighteen gifts for her unborn daughter is met with awkward silence and sideways glances (while other members are discussing their sexual promiscuity and whether they should have their cremated ashes converted into diamonds). In fact, everybody acts like the idea of a mother trying to substitute her presence with presents for her daughter’s birthdays is insane and awful. At one point it’s suggested that Anna is unfairly burdened by these gifts from her dead mother. I guess that’s just how the other half lives; burdened by too many gifts and slumming it in penthouses. It made me feel sorry for Italians.
18 Presents is the brain-child of daytime soap opera and Hallmark with an affinity for the F-word and cigarettes. Though it has its virtues, I have a hard time universally recommending a tear-jerker unless it is almost above reproach. This movie has its audience, and cry-fests are necessary evils in their time and season, but it lacks any “must-see” qualities. Considering how hard it is these days to acquire tissues, maybe go with something on Sam Cooley’s “Ultimate Feel-Good Movie list” instead.
Recommendation: SKIP IT