Synopsis – After receiving life-altering news, a couple finds unexpected support from their best friend, who puts his own life on hold and moves into their family home, bringing an impact much greater and more profound than anyone could have imagined
My Take – Though films based on the emotional toll cancer causes to the person suffering and everyone around them continue to be an awards-bait favorite, in my opinion, only few manage to rise about their weepy-levels of melodrama to earn some kind of poignancy. Thankfully, this second feature from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Morgan Leavey), which debuted at TIFF all the way back in 2019, is one such film.
Mainly as the film isn’t really about the illness or the family’s struggles, though it does contain those elements, instead its focus is more on providing a poignant tale of friendship, love, and loss. Based on the award-winning 2015 Esquire article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” by journalist Matthew Teague, here, director Cowperthwaite embraces the authentic realities behind its true story premise, while devastating, also manages to be sweet, involving and very moving.
Sure, the film isn’t without significant flaws, like how the personal story is told in a non-linear fashion, a choice that makes it unnecessarily confusing to follow, and at times also ends up undermining whatever efforts writer Brad Ingelsby and director Cowperthwaite take to make the film feel like a novel twist on a well-worn story.
However, despite the odd narrative decision, the film has enough poignancy to keep us invested in its wonderful tear jerking story, characters and emotions.
The story follows a married couple, Matt (Casey Affleck), a journalist and Nicole (Dakota Johnson), a theater artist, whose life enters into an unprecedented turmoil when she becomes diagnosed with cancer. As their family struggle to keep their head above water, their longtime-friend Dane (Jason Segel) decides to put his life including his job, and his relationship with Kat (Marielle Scott), on hold, to move to their Alabama home to help look after their two daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evangeline (Violet McGraw).
Though the arrangement is essentially only for a few days, those days extend into weeks, then months and then more than a year. And as Nicole continues to break in front of them, both Matt and Dane grapple with reality while trying to navigate a domestic life for the young girls.
In the film’s first few minutes we’re made aware Nicole’s battle with cancer is nearing its end. Both children are aware their mom’s sick but are unaware that her passing could be just a matter of days away. From this emotional opening, the film jumps around over 13 years in the couple’s life, chronicling the beginning, middle, and ultimate end of Matthew and Nicole’s relationship.
It also charts the dedication of the couple’s affable third-wheel, Dane, a friendly, compassionate, and unshakably loyal friend who commits to assisting the entire family through Nicole’s terminal illness. Without Dane, its unlikely Matthew would have been able to handle the stressful situation and keep his family intact.
As if to offset these expectations, writer Brad Ingelsby’s script opts for a fragmented approach. It shuttles audiences back and forth in time to present Nicole, Matt and Dane’s intersecting lives out of order. Dane does chores around the house while Nicole rests. Dane meets and flirts with Nicole without knowing she’s married. Matt travels for work yet again as Nicole tries to raise her young girls. Nicole receives her diagnosis, and so on and so forth.
The impetus to fracture the narrative so extensively is driven, it becomes very obvious that the film is trying best to avoid telling the same old story about how families cope with terminal illnesses. While the film’s tone could have gone haywire in the wrong hands, but under Cowperthwaite’s assured direction, the narrative’s heart-tugging aspects never reach into insincere territory.
Where a lot of film would throw-in grand dramatic speeches to enhance the effect, here, director Cowperthwaite presents a self-awareness to trust the material. Her emotive frames present a quiet intimacy that speaks volumes about the characters’ difficult process. Sure, the grieving process is a taxing to endure, but I am glad she never forgets the love present beneath this challenging undertaking.
Frankly, the film is at its most successful when it’s prioritizing Dane, as he is the film’s heart and soul. While their friends consider Dane to be clingy and a bit of a loser, Matthew and Nicole treat Dane like an adopted member of the family, and Segel portrays him as selfless, empathetic, and unconditionally supportive. His character provides a clear-eyed perspective of the waves of regular hospital visits, nonexistent sleep patterns, and familial tension. And the actor’s resting charm draws out the lightness of these events without descending into a shtick.
Yes, not all of his track works like, the soul searching interlude in the desert with Teresa (Gwendoline Christie), a German backpacker, kind of falls flat, but both Ingelsby and director Cowperthwaite mine a deep inadequacy in his character, which implicitly explains his devotion to the family.
However, like I mentioned above the film does have its faults. Other than the at times confusing timeline shifts, the film doesn’t deal well with Nicole’s character. As it based on Teague’s own account, the film makes him, along with Dane the central protagonist of the story of how they dealt with Nicole’s illness. And there’s a brave attempt here to really focus on the mundane stresses that come with battling cancer, as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.
But in depriving Nicole from her own clear character traits, the film fails her, making her late outbursts, including uncalled for affair, feel needlessly half-baked.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to look away from the screen mainly as the trio share a dynamic chemistry, which often ends up commanding the screen even when the film is at its most bare-bones. As exhibited numerous times before, Jason Segel, once again channels the buoyant earnestness that turned him into such a lovable actor who manages to draw laughs even out of the toughest circumstances. Though, he will always be adored as a comedic bright spot, but it’s the film’s more intimate frames where Segel exhibits his expressive abilities.
Casey Affleck aptly represents Matthew’s deeply-seated turmoil, with the Oscar-winning actor naturally expressing nuanced emotional beats through a mere glimpse or facial tick. It’s also pleasant to see the usually-solemn star have some fun onscreen, particularly when he’s sharing it with Jason Segel’s Dane.
Though, Dakota Johnson has most the underwritten character out the trio, she aptly plays Nicole as an average 34-year-old woman dealt the worst hand imaginable. Young actresses, Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw are quite excellent too. In other roles, Cherry Jones, Gwendoline Christie, Marielle Scott, Jake Owen, Denée Benton, Ahna O’Reilly and Azita Ghanizada are also good. On the whole, ‘Our Friend’ is a heartfelt drama that earns its numerous tugs at the heartstrings.
Directed – Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Rated – R
Run Time – 124 minutes