Synopsis: After learning his terminally ill wife has six months to live, a man welcomes the support of his best friend who moves into their home to help out.
Stars: Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel, Gwendoline Christie, Cherry Jones, Ahna O’Reilly, Jake Owen, Denée Benton, Marielle Scott, Isabella Kai Rice, Violet McGraw, Michael Papajohn
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As we kick off a new year here and cross our fingers that 2021 will signal the start of better things to come, I’m also looking forward to movies getting back to business and releasing some titles that have been hovering around in limbo for a while. Sure, there are the blockbuster properties that keep getting pushed back (the latest James Bond film No Time to Die just moved its arrival date yet again, this time to October 2021) or released directly to on demand/subscription streaming (Wonder Woman 1984) but then there are the more niche movies that showed up at film festivals in late 2019/early 2020. Some of these may have had a distributor lined up that fell through when the pandemic hit or are going through their own release date shifts on a smaller scale.
Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2019 when it was still called The Friend, the new drama Our Friend is one of those movies that has gotten lost on its way to a general release but is finally seeing the light of day. Now, for some reason the delays and distributor shifts have cast a small cloud of strangely bad press over the film and that’s unfortunate because Our Friend signals the return of two important things that have been missing from movies for a few years. The first is Jason Segel’s welcome appearance after a small hiatus and the second is the true-blue five hankie weepie that seemed to go out of fashion in the mid ‘90s. Both are reason enough to cheer on this solid effort but it’s richly rewarding in other areas as well.
Based on Matthew Teague’s article in the May 2015 issue of Esquire magazine (read it here, but it does contain spoilers from the movie), Our Friend tests your mettle within the first five minutes, almost as a way to prime you for the next two hours to see if you’ll break easy or if you’ll need an extra dose of sorrow to get those tear ducts flowing. Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a limited amount of time to live. Her journalist/author husband Matthew (Casey Affleck, The Old Man & the Gun) is at-first ill-prepared to deal with the enormous responsibility of caring for their two young children as well as his increasingly fragile wife while staying afloat personally and professionally. That’s where Dane Faucheux (Segel, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) comes in.
A friend from Nicole’s theater days (she was a semi-professional actress, he was on the tech side), Dane steps away from his life, his job, and a budding relationship to live with the Teague’s, eventually staying for the duration of Nicole’s illness. While he’s a bit of a schlub, he’s the perfect breath of fresh air the household needs, especially the daughters that aren’t aware of the severity of their mother’s illness and who are growing to recognize their resentment toward their father for his absence earlier in their lives when he was often traveling internationally for work. Isolated once well-meaning friends have moved on with their own lives, the job of caregivers falls to Matt and Dane exclusively. Through this time together, the men form a stronger bond over the love they both have, in different ways, for Nicole and learn how to care for her individually and as a unit with the aid of a professional nurse that arrives at just the right moment (Cherry Jones, Boy Erased) so her final days are as full and memorable as possible.
After seeing the movie but before writing this review I read Matthew Teague’s original article that inspired the film and was struck by how well Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) brought the characters to life for the screen. Now, there are some situations not covered in the article that delve into more personal issues within Matt and Nicole’s relationship and I’d be interested to know if they were imagined or factual but I appreciated the small details Ingelsby worked in throughout. The article was praised for its raw, unglamorous, unflinching reaction to the death of a loved one and the description of what it’s like to live through that and I think the movie naturally recoils a bit from going that far. While to some that may rob the movie of its street cred authenticity to its source material, what it’s been replaced with calls forth many of the same emotions…just in a different way.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite made a significant impact with her documentary Blackfish in 2013 before transitioning into narrative features with 2017’s Megan Leavey and she brings her good instincts for drama and humanity to the table for her second full-length feature. Ingelsby’s script isn’t linear, broken up into scenes that jump from the present to the past to the present to the not quite as past as before and onward. It’s strange but in other hands that jumping around could drain the film of its emotional build-up but it actually works in the opposite. Knowing where the film is heading and then seeing where these characters began makes the heartbreak have that much more of an impact when we jump back to the present and see Nicole in the final stages of a ravaging disease.
As much as the jaded movie-goer (and critic) might think it’s every actor’s dream to play a dying swan of a role, it’s such a demanding task that requires some careful skill and thankfully Johnson is cast perfectly as Nicole. Never laying it on thick, she fades in health with a slight delicacy, and you’re reminded again that Johnson continues to be quite the underrated actor. No stranger to aching sorrow-fests, Oscar-winner Affleck’s character has so many qualities we can all relate to that you can’t help but cast yourself often as the protagonist…when you’re not seeing the situation through Dane’s vantage point. Matt Teague has some interesting quirks about him and Affleck captures those nicely, feeding off the warmth of Johnson and the fervent support Segel is offering up. Speaking of Segal, what a fantastic role for him and it’s another step away from the types of characters he was known for playing a decade ago. Showing a staunch commitment to going outside of the box but also not playing inside the sharp edges of a triangle, Segel knows where he’s comfortable now and that ease translates into a character built from the ground up. I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Jones, who just exudes warmth whenever she enters a movie, even if she appears only briefly.
If you can get through Our Friend and not choke up just a little bit, especially the last thirty minutes, then you are made of stronger stuff than I am. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience from a similar situation to what this family went through and some of the finality portrayed onscreen, but the movie hit a nerve that hasn’t been tweaked in some time. Do you want it totally truthful? Honestly? I don’t think the movie even overdoes the emotional manipulation and forces the tears out of you…for once they actually spring naturally based on the quality of the performances, direction, and writing. It feels good to have a reason to cry for all the right reasons.