Movie Review ~ Our Friend

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The Facts
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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

Rated: R

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.

Movie Review ~ Lady Bird

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.