Our Friend, 2019.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson. Jason Segel, Gwendoline Christie, Cherry Jones, Ahna O’Reilly, Jake Owen, Denée Benton, Marielle Scott, Isabella Kai, Violet McGraw, and Michael Papajohn.
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
Jason Segel channels the gentleness and frustration from his career-best role as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour as Dane, the titular best friend to the family in director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s (the riveting whale abuse documentary Blackfish and serviceable female-led military drama Megan Leavey) Our Friend, occasionally utilizing his natural talent as a comedic actor to make the children laugh. At one point, he jokingly refers to himself as their grandma, which might be the most succinct manner of describing the character and performance; he’s more than a friend, more than a nonbiological relative, but rather encapsulates that heavy burden to bear as not just looking after those closest to him, but functioning as the glue sticking everything together.
Dane has pressed pause on his life (often causing friction between his own relationships and stifling his own personal life fulfillment) to help care for the aforementioned siblings so dad Matthew Teague (portrayed by Casey Affleck here with the film also based on an article Teague published in Esquire Magazine called The Friend) can get a better handle on looking after the matriarch of the household Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed with cancer. As expected, Casey Affleck is also terrific as an exhausted journalist that’s not necessarily the best at tackling heavy conversations (an early scene sees one of his daughters labeling him a coward for being able to explain what’s going on with their dog who also has cancer), whereas Dakota Johnson thankfully sidesteps pity party melodrama eliciting sadness within a commitment to make the rest of her days as joyous and meaningful as possible.
Something is done here with letters that, by the end of the film, had me fighting back tears with a note in mind for writing this review; anyone that sees Our Friend that is or knows someone diagnosed with a terminal illness should absolutely be encouraged to write similar letters. Knowing what they are and that this is a real-life story only adds to that emotional impact and sensation of wanting to stay in the loop of what these people are up to in the future.
With that out of the way, it’s also important to note that, as the title suggests, this is not just a movie centered on a woman with cancer. At times, that can, unfortunately, be a detriment to the characterization of Nicole (it would have been nice to spend a little more time with her before her family life when she was involved in musical theater, although for some Dakota Johnson singing a few beautiful songs over montages will be a fair trade-off) to where she comes dangerously close to being solely defined by her illness.
Nevertheless, half is focused on Dane, the life he wanted, the life he is living, and the life that is passing him by. Before knowing Nicole was ever married to Matthew, he had once asked her out on a date. Despite the marriage, the three of them developed a clear strong bond even if it seems like Dane’s life has been held back by his platonic infatuation with Nicole that might still be romantic inside. There’s a section where the character drops everything to go hiking for a bit, briefly meeting a traveler movingly played by Gwendoline Christie who tells a story of being in the same situation once before with nothing to live for and thinking of suicide. Soon after, Dane has a devastating realization that it’s not so much that he has nothing to live for, but the family he does for is will never be a permanent staple of his life, and even if he could one of them won’t even be among the living in a short while. Nicole has a gut-punch line herself directed at Dane saying “it’s not fair only I know how special you are”, and as we watch the film studying his kindness and compassion, it’s an agreeable statement. His friendship is unwavering but the time to move on and live for something else is inevitable.
Through no fault of Casey Affleck, the ball is dropped when it comes to Matthew, who doesn’t really have a character arc but more so blink and you miss it glances at different stages of his life. Before cancer, the marriage was already somewhat dysfunctional as Matthew went from journalist to war correspondent leaving Nicole frequently home alone taking on a stay-at-home mom role she never wanted. The same issues could be applied whenever the story tries to explore Dane’s life outside supporting the family. Structurally, Our Friend jumps back and forth pre-diagnosis and after the diagnosis, usually jarringly so with the film never really finding a narrative groove. Thankfully, the performances from Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, and Jason Segel find the emotion on the page (written by Brad Ingelsby) and bring it to life, regardless of how fragmented the story is presented.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com