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.
Films dealing with personal tragedy are tricky enterprises. They walk a fine line between pathos and schmaltz and it doesn’t take much for them to lose their audience. If one insincere moment occurs or an overly dramatic music cue is heard, viewers are likely to be rolling their eyes instead of gently weeping. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Our Friend” manages to avoid these pitfalls, telling the true story of a family riven by cancer and a very close friend of theirs who did his best to see them through it. That it’s able to do so is due not only to masterful direction and solid performances, but also the unique nature of the script.
Employing a timeline that glides back and forth over a 13-year period, the script by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “American Woman”) begins at the end of Matt and Nicole Teague’s (Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson) story. After a year-long battle with cancer and a very short amount of time left, they are faced with telling their two daughters (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai) that their mother will soon pass on. A series of flashbacks ensue in which we witness them endure the many ups and downs that marriage is prone to as well as the unique friendship they have with Dane (Jason Segel), a harmless, directionless man whose big heart proves to be his saving grace.
Less a traditional weeper and more of an examination of devotion, the film’s non-linear structure allows seemingly innocuous moments from the past to take on a deeper meaning. We see Matt and Nicole’s careers grow, their daughters blossom into strong young girls, the many mistakes they make along the way, the damage they inflict on one another, the love that endures despite the damage and the way the cancer cruelly and slowly takes its toll. And through it all, Dane helps them, caring for the girls when they can’t, his bad jokes at times alleviating the tension, acting as a mediator when hard truths are spoken.
None of this is done in an obvious or melodramatic way and while it would be inaccurate to say the film has a documentary feel to it, there is a sense of realism here due to Cowperthwaite’s deft touch and the sincerity of the three leads. The director tips her hand during the first scene as her camera doesn’t focus on a sight guaranteed to elicit tears but rather a less obvious choice, refusing the pander to the audience or base emotion. This is a strategy she employs throughout and the movie is better for it.
At its core, Ingelsby’s script is a character study, albeit with a trio under the microscope. The three principals are thoroughly fleshed out by the veteran actors, each of them bringing small nuances to their characters. Beautifully rendered quiet moments are the strength of the film, Affleck and Johnson conveying an unstated devotion to each other, quietly breaking the viewer’s heart in a scene where they recount their first meeting, Segel getting his own moment after Dane realizes how much Matt and Nicole mean to him.
Those who have had the misfortune to have endured a trial such as depicted here will be able to relate intimately to the events on display. Cheap sentiment is not to be found in this heartfelt film, making it the first great movie of 2021. In the end, there’s more than a bit of inspiration amidst the tears as “Friend” powerfully reminds us that there are few things more important in life than having someone there to catch you when you fall.
“Our Friend,” based on the Matthew Teague’s article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” retells the heartbreakingly loving story of friendship and compassion. Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has terminal cancer. We learn this in the opening scene as Nicole and her husband, Matt (Casey Affleck) discuss the essentials of delivering the news to their two young daughters who are currently being entertained by the family friend, Dane (Jason Segel). “Our Friend” takes us on an extraordinary journey over a decade as the family lived and subsequently dealt with the short future ahead.
As quickly as we hear the devastating words of Nicole’s impending death, the story jumps back in time for us to experience the young couple’s blissful beginnings and comedic introduction to Dane, a hapless sweetheart who, at one time, pined for Nicole. The three, against all odds, become inseparable and Dane finds himself as a part of a family. The story jumps back and forth in time to inform us of all that has happened in their lives, the ups and the downs, the joys and frustrations, to bring us to the pivotal point of the end. This counterweight allows our emotions to relax and enjoy the every day banter or the arguments and issues that every couple experiences, but with these bookmarks in life, we always pivot back to the fallout of the inevitable.
Occasionally, the timeline is a bit confusing as it jumps from references of 5 years ago or 1 year after the diagnosis, and while this is off-putting during the film, you realize that it’s not that important to the overall story. What is important is that we glean important information about the past, getting to know this couple and the incredible generosity and loyalty of their friend. And thanks to the insightfully detailed and evocative skills of writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”) who pays careful attention to each of our main characters, we can see the world through their eyes.
Dane, lacking in confidence and direction, finds meaning in his life as the fun uncle or as he calls himself Grandma Dane, but we also see him struggling to find his own path in life. However, his friendship is unwavering with a deep love for the entire family, however there’s an emotional barricade he seems to face, driving him to care for others more than for himself. In fact, the film, originally entitled “The Friend” is much more aptly renamed as “Our Friend” as Nicole, Matt, and both children rely heavily upon him, and sometimes, as we see, to his own detriment.
Matt, on the other hand, dreams of being recognized as a great writer and wants to further his career which leads to marital issues. Nicole’s theatrical focus is her only outlet, but both have missing pieces in their lives. Dane is always the sounding board, the voice of reason, and the safety net they both need no matter where he is in his own life, floundering to make sense of it all.
There are plenty of moments to laugh, and to cry, as we are captivated by the giggles of the children and relate to the everyday moments, “Our Friend” is a perfectly balanced story that rings true to every aspect of life including facing death. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite delicately allows her stars to perform with all the subtleties and nuances of reality which brings us into the picture, into their lives, and to walk beside them on this journey. It’s hard to imagine any other actor having the capacity to deliver these performances other than Segel, Affleck, and Johnson. They portray their characters as flawed, imperfect people who forge ahead, trying to properly play the cards they have been dealt. Segel, while he makes us laugh and chuckle, captures our hearts as he becomes Dane—we all know someone like him—a complicated, sad soul looking for someone to guide and love him. Segel is the glue that binds the entire cast together, a superglue force, who reminds us to cherish every day with those you love.
Johnson’s understated performance has incredible depth as a wife, friend, and then loving mother who must wrestle with the possibility of leaving her children behind. It’s simply devastating, but Johnson finds the humanity and humility to give us a performance of a lifetime. And Affleck, no stranger to the importance of nuanced roles, delivers with brilliance. If you’ve not walked in his character’s shoes, you will be able to better sympathize with someone who has by the time the credits roll. Affleck shows us the trauma, anger, and frustration over the inability to protect someone he loves; his children from losing their mother and his wife from succumbing to the disease. We also get a bird’s eye view of the domino effect of what cancer can do to a family; the ripples reach much further than we can imagine.
“Our Friend” reminds us of the importance of compassion and giving our time to those we love and those who are in need. This heartfelt and original yet universal story with superb performances thanks not only to the talented actors but to a credible script and an intuitive director makes “Our Friend” a film you need to see.
3 1/2 Stars