In May of 2015 journalist Matthew Teague wrote an essay for Esquire magazine titled “The Friend: Love is Not a Big Enough Word“. This deeply personal piece told of his late wife Nicole who had died from ovarian cancer eight months earlier. She was only 34-years-old. It told of the dignity and courage she showed through two years of suffering. It spoke of the physical, emotional, and psychological burden on both of them and their two daughters. The award-winning essay also spoke of Dane, a dear family friend who left his life behind and for fourteen months cared for the Teague family and stood by them through it all.
The new film “Our Friend” attempts to tell this heartbreaking yet inspiring true story while avoiding the overused devices and platitudes that too often accompany movies about terminal illness. These kinds of films are already tricky since they come with their own baked-in set of challenges. But then you toss in the aforementioned ‘deeply personal’ element attached to real-life stories like this. It adds a certain pressure to be honest and faithful (to a degree) while keeping your film from become some mushy Hollywood weepie.
“Our Friend” manages these challenges surprisingly well and gives us a character-rich drama with moments of levity that (thankfully) keeps it from becoming a humorless death march. At the same time it takes a sober and sincere approach that focuses more on the emotional toil than the physical. You won’t find the wrenching details from Matthew Teague’s essay about how the cancer ravaged Nicole’s body. Mercifully we aren’t forced to see the half-digested food oozing from the wounds on her abdomen or the stomach acids that would burn through adhesives and eat away at her flesh. But what you will find is a movie saturated in authentic emotion; one that takes an earnest and clear-eyed look at cancer but doesn’t allow the disease to outshine the characters.
The film is helmed by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, perhaps best known for her 2013 documentary “Blackfish”, and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby who also penned last year’s terrific Ben Affleck vehicle “The Way Back”. “Our Friend” premiered at the 2019 Toronto Independent Film Festival and now finally getting its full release by Gravitas Ventures and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
Cowperthwaite opens with one of the film’s most gripping scenes – a prologue where Matthew and Nicole Teague sit in their bedroom preparing to deliver some bad news to their two daughters. The camera rests on Matt (Casey Affleck), his terminally ill wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) barely out of the frame to our right. As he prepares what to say he rules out certain phrases that might mislead or offer false hope. He breaks down, quickly composes himself, and then walks out to get their daughters. The camera moves to Nicole, sitting in bed and putting on her best face for her girls. It’s an elegantly shot and quietly devastating introduction.
From there the story bounces back-and-forth across the timeline, covering fifteen years of life before and after Nicole’s diagnosis. The fractured storytelling isn’t as seamless as it could be, sometimes shuttling you from one moment in time to another with a jolt. Yet it’s tone is managed remarkably well and the time jumps keep the story from drowning in morbidity, ensuring that this trio of friends are defined by more than a disease.
Jason Segel is the piece that sets the movie apart – the titular friend in the film’s title (or is he). Segel brings slices of that ‘lovable loser’ charm he’s known for, but his character Dane is more than an outlet for humor and buoyancy. He’s surprisingly layered; compassionate beyond comprehension yet aimless and full of self-doubt. Before Nicole’s diagnosis we see him stuck in the perpetual ‘nice guy’ trap. You know, the guy most people like but who always loses out on the girl. After the diagnosis he goes to stay with and help Matt and Nicole in Alabama, leaving behind a girlfriend in New Orleans who’s crazy about him. For him it’s as much running from commitment and searching for self-fulfillment as it is helping friends in need.
The three central performances are terrific with Affleck, Johnson, and Segel showing off a strong organic chemistry. All three are able to flesh out their characters through material that allows them to be more than just victims. Affleck is strikingly subdued playing a man repressing his pain for the sake of his family. Johnson gives a penetrating performance full of life but also vulnerability and pathos. And Segel brings a good balance to the witty, ever-faithful Dane – a character slyly burying his own problems but always by Matt and Nicole’s side even as other friends begin distancing themselves one-by-one.
Aside for some wobbly structuring and a few weird song choices, “Our Friend” is a moving and distinctly human study of love, friendship, commitment, and of what it takes to come out on the other side of such a life-shattering trauma. It’s an effective tearjerker that slightly diverts from Matthew Teague’s crushing essay by delving more into the characters. It still shows the ravaging effects of the disease, but not in the Michael Haneke “Amour” sense. Instead it has a broader aim and features three sublime performances that breathe life, empathy, and inspiration into this true-life story of love and friendship. “Our Friend” opens January 22nd in theaters and on VOD.