Photo: ‘Our Friend’/Gravitas Ventures
“His wife was just thirty-four. They had two little girls. The cancer was everywhere, and the parts of dying that nobody talks about were about to start. His best friend came to help out for a couple of weeks. And he never left”.
That’s the introduction to Matthew Teague’s 2015 Esquire article ‘The Friend’ (which you can read in its entirety here and I highly recommend), about his wife’s cancer diagnosis and deteriorating health, and the best friend who dropped everything in his life and moved in to help the family navigate the illness and imminent death. It’s also now the basis of the new movie ‘Our Friend’ from ‘Blackfish’ director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and executive producer Ridley Scott. The resulting film is an emotionally honest and very poignant story of unbearable loss and true friendship, bolstered by some very strong performances. The story it tells is resolutely a ‘reality’ story, both in that, it really happened, and in that, it feels thoroughly authentic.
Honesty About Illness
“We don’t tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying”, wrote Teague in his article. “Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It’s grotesque. It’s undignified. No one ever told me the truth about it, not once”. He’s not wrong. Looking at most films and TV shows that center on characters dealingwithterminalillnesses, we understandably try to downplay the severity and focus more on the inspirational side. Sure there might be moments of fear and rage from the characters—dark nights of the soul. But for the most part, they’re enlightened by the diagnosis and start to see the world differently, or they begin to seize the day and make the most of what little time they have left. It is believable. And that moves us and other characters: they teach us how we should live and what really matters in life.
Cowperthwaite’s film is not as matter-of-fact as Teague’s article. This is a good thing; it charts its own path, not attempting to obsolete Teague’s account with a straightforward adaptation. It is an uncommonly refreshing film, approaching grief, illness, and dying unlike any other. So often, films about terminal illness are tales of one last hurrah–the dying person becomes a hero, valiantly staving off the end in pursuit of justice or adventure or love. By exploring the evolving relationship between two men attempting to administer palliative care to a woman they love, ‘Our Friend’ is able to avoid many of the typical Hollywood tropes. The film doesn’t cut as things get hard, it sees its story through to the end.
The film is full of counterintuitive moments one would not expect to encounter in a typical Hollywood melodrama about dying. When Matt and Nicole’s marriage is rocked by infidelity, the narrative avoids sanctifying Nicole. When Nicole struggles, there are many moments when she prefers Dane’s presence to her husband’s. The film spends considerable time examining how Matt and Dane maintain some semblance of mental well-being throughout their ordeal.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s earlier work as a documentarian seems to have imbued her narrative work with an even-handed, natural feel, while her work as a podcaster seems to inform her film’s impressive thoughtfulness. The film is abundant with small, lived-in details, like a character shouting through the sunroof during a late-night drive, or banging on a finicky printer. The photography is incredible. The Teague’s hometown of Fairhope, Alabama is frequently filmed from the sky, only its water tower and church steeple rising above the embrace of the verdant forest.
Frequently, establishing shots are shown at three levels of zoom, pulling away to highlight the vastness of the world and the smallness of the people in it. Joe Anderson, the cinematographer, honed his skill working on Judd Apatow projects, which tend to be elevated to art status thanks in no small part to excellent camerawork. The film’s script, provided by Brad Ingelsby, tells the story with a satisfying non-chronological rhythm, but production designer Cara Brower keeps things grounded with short-hand details that mark the passage of time. All of these components, when combined, work towards enhancing the emotional honesty of the film.
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‘Our Friend’ – The Importance of Friendship
Nicole’s cancer diagnosis doesn’t become a catalyst for people to change their lives for the better (and even if it were, we’re not really privy to it since we stay entirely with Dane, Nicole, and Matthew). There’s no upside that gives her suffering any deeper meaning: only a slow and painful death as her condition worsens, especially in the harrowing third act as cancer affects Nicole’s sanity. The film is astute about both the positive and less positive aspects of such an ordeal in a non-judgmental manner. We see friends and neighbors dropping food off on the porch, but we also see Matthew feel guilty over going on a short hike with Dane to unwind. As Nicole is diagnosed we see her friends rally around her in support and even helping with her bucket list, but then those same friends stop showing up as she gets sicker.
And yet errands have to be run. Someone has to cook and clean and look after the kids. Driving past a playground seeing moms and their kids play only painfully reminds Matthew that the world will keep turning even as his wife suffers; that everyday life has to go on. ‘Our Friend’ knows this.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s one that’s not that complicated: that having a steadfast friend by your side to weather through the difficult times can be a blessing. They may not be able to fix everything or make the pain go away, but they can help ease some of the burdens. And even the smallest actions can make a difference.
Transformative Performances from Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel, and more
Casey Affleck’s performance is not too dissimilar from his award-winning performance in ‘Manchester by the Sea’. And he does a very good job of conveying Matthew’s numbed-but-unfathomable grief and at times gloomy demeanor. Dakota Johnson is radiant as Nicole: you get why people are drawn to her. And she’s especially good in the film’s final third: as she slips into psychosis, the scenes of her mentally deteriorating and lashing out at Dane and Matthew in rage are heartbreaking and terrifying.
Matthew Teague wrote, “When she smiled, men imagined she needed them, and she smiled a lot” about his wife, Nicole. She is played here by actress Dakota Johnson, who since her debut as Sean Parker’s paramour in ‘The Social Network’ has balanced radiant desire with a fiercely insistent self-possession. Here, there’s an aching that Casey Affleck is not the first prickly personality Johnson has been cast against. She’s squared off with the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Jamie Dornan, making the combination of Casey Affleck and Jason Segel seem like a cakewalk in comparison. Even in advanced stages of ailing health, she rules the roost.
But the real standout in this film is Jason Segel. The role of Dane fits really well with his good-natured goofball/screw-up persona as seen in works like ‘How I Met Your Mother’, ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, or ‘I Love You, Man’. This movie would only work if you buy into Dane’s friendships with both Matthew and Nicole, and Segel has great chemistry with both Affleck and Johnson. He brings amiable charm and even some light humor to the proceedings—his scenes with the kids, played by Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, are quite delightful. At the same time Cowperthwaite, Ingelsby, and Segel also refreshingly refuse to turn Dane into a one-dimensional saint. We see his disappointment, his loneliness, low self-worth, and hints of depression. Which makes it all the more moving when he steps up for his best friends.
The film’s supporting cast is also remarkable. Gwendoline Christie appears as a gregarious German woman who shores up Dane’s spirits when his depression drives him to seek solitude in the desert. Isabella Kai gives a surprisingly mature performance as the tempestuous older daughter Molly, while Violet McGraw shines as younger daughter Evie. Broadway star Denée Benton graces the film as Nicole’s friend Charlotte and also contributes to the soundtrack. Character actor Michael Papajohn, frequently cast as heavies, gives a compassionate turn as the doctor who breaks the news of Nicole’s prognosis to Matt, and Cherry Jones is wonderful as the no-nonsense hospice nurse.
Minor structure issues aside (the film does perhaps rely too heavily on flashbacks, a la “This Is Us,” ‘Our Friend’ succeeds on both levels. It works as an honest exploration of life with cancer. And it also works as a warm tribute to the best friend anyone could ever have. It’s a heartfelt and emotional film that I can recommend. And have tissues ready.
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