Spanish director Gustavo Ron captures the vulnerability of a sick tween beautifully. Sam isn't old enough to do anything too wild and crazy, but he is old enough to want a first kiss, to understand the inevitability of death, and to want to make sure he leaves his mark on the world. Young Robbie Kay (who was 14 when he filmed the role) is surprisingly good at conveying both the curiosity of a boy ("what will it feel like when you die?") and the anger and confusion or an adolescent (not to mention the excitement of finding his one and only girlfriend).
Books and movies about people with terminal illnesses are nothing new, but when the dying character is a kid, it can be nearly unbearable to witness. Although Ways to Live Forever is at times a tough movie to watch (and kids may understandably feel saddened by the subject matter), it's not violent or melodramatic. Only in the final third of the story, after Felix dies, does the tone turn heavy. Sam knows that all of the things that he and Felix wished for (to have a girlfriend, fly in an airship, try a drink, take a drag on a cigarette, become a scientist) are only a fraction of what they could have accomplished with more time. But time isn't on their side, and Sam knows it -- as do his parents, his sister, and of course, the audience. When the end does finally, inevitably arrive, it's not as devastating as you imagine, because the humor and curiosity and love that Sam had to share make it bearable after all.