I can see how people will be out off by the new film “Our Friend”, in being just another movie about a loved one’s battle with cancer. However this is no sappy teenage romance like “A Walk To Remember”, instead “Our Friend” is someone’s real life being played out on screen. And at the same time, you don’t want to be strident about situations that these real people had to deal with every day, such as terminal illness. It takes a good balance to bring their story to the screen and “Our Friend” is on that short list of great, solid tear-jerkers. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Inglesby, have adapted a delicately crafted tale of love and loss, that is a masterclass in how to do these kinds of movies just the way they were meant to be.
Originally debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, it has been delayed for various reasons. “Our Friend” is based on the Esquire article titled “The Friend” written by journalist Matthew Teague (also the films Executive Producer), who is played here by Casey Affleck. The article itself won the National Magazine Award and is now being adapted as a based on a true story of Matt and his wife Nicole (played by Dakota Johnson), who at 34-years-old was diagnosed with cancer. Having been friends with Nicole since College, the huge-hearted Dane, sees that his friend was unable to cope with her deteriorating health, caring for their two daughters and managing a household.
Dane immediately offers to move in to provide whatever kind of support is needed to the family. He is there every step of the way, whether he’s helping the girls get ready for school, clinking beers with Matt (who have also become best friends) or offers a sympathetic ear. Dane is even there to listen to Nicole, who bears her burden with great dignity and strength but becomes prone to the occasional meltdown, as any of us would be in her situation.
Dane is just a shy but a nice and lovable guy, who Nicole had lovingly shot down when he asked her out years ago because she was already married. Luckily asking her out, never got in the way of Dane and Matt becoming best friends. From there, we see the ups and downs in Matthew and Nicole’s marriage intercut with Dane’s struggles with depression and being stuck in a never-ending series of dead-end jobs while struggling to meet the right woman.
In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film, we witness many familiar scenes from any number of movies about the life threatening illness. From the noble patient who just might beat this thing but suffers a setback to the loving friends and family members who are sometimes overwhelmed by it all to the flashback sequences when life was relatively carefree and light to the final farewell, which no matter what will gets us every time.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who directed the underrated 2017 true story “Megan Leavey”, gives us a tender, poignant and scattershot drama in “Our Friend”. Cowperthwaite teams up with screenwriter Brad Inglesby, who recently penned the script to the Ben Affleck sports drama “The Way Back”. Also on board is the legend himself, filmmaker Ridley Scott who is the films Executive Producer. His Scott Free Productions casts such an admirably wide net over both film and television in all genres that he embraces everything he does including Cowperthwaite’s lovely film.
Led by three exceptional performances from Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades Of Grey” trilogy), Casey Affleck (“Manchester By The Sea”) and Jason Segel (“I Love You Man”). The big surprise is the performance from Jason Segel, who has found a wonderful balance here. He plays closest to his roles in “The End of the Tour” or the Netflix film “The Discovery”. This is a perfect role for Segel, allowing him to be both funny but also serious as needed. His role is what someone like Robin Williams would have played and Segel nails it. Segel is the first of three, who are doing their career-best work.
Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson are great as well. Dakota Johnson, who grew up to a famous family including father Don Johnson, mom Melanie Griffith and grandmother Tippi Hedren (“The Birds”), easily has the most grueling part. Johnson plays both the kind family woman and also a brutally ill cancer patient. Dakota Johnson exudes a strong and active energy as Nicole, whether she is in the vigor of her youth or when she begins to slowly fade. She certainly turns in the most impressive performance of her career thus far, giving us laughs and tears that feel real.
Casey Affleck (of course younger brother to Ben) plays Matt relatively close to past roles he has played as the serious husband. He conveys a real sense of warmth and you believe that Casey Affleck as both a loving partner and father. But Affleck is of course, somber and aloof, because that’s sort of his thing, isn’t it? And Affleck knows his strengths playing these character types and is so good at it, which is why we should be so grateful that he gravitates to these roles. This is easily his most emotional performance since nabbing the Oscar for “Manchester By The Sea”.
“Our Friend” has a non-linear approach that can be hard-to-follow. The story takes from the structure of “500 Days Of Summer” and jumps back and forth between timelines. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite provides us with title cards of the time period we are watching unfold on screen, to help in not keeping us confused. During the flashes of back and forth between timelines, represent that life is an up and down battle and it has it’s good days and bad.
The bounds of friendship are examined in many different ways in “Our Friend”, such as the situation with Dane. While there isn’t a traditional love triangle going on between Dane, Matt and Nicole. There is a sense that Dane loves both Matt and Nicole unconditionally and won’t play one side against the other. Does Dane still carry any romantic feelings for Nicole? There are moments it seems like he does, but thankfully the film doesn’t go down that route that most movies would have.
I think the realism here works due to several factors, including Matthew Teague’s involvement being an executive producer (alongside none other than Ridley Scott), a wonderful script by Brad Ingelsby and a direction by accomplished documentarian turned movie maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite at the helm. Because of this, the depiction of cancer here is among one of the most unvarnished to be depicted on film. The films most gut-wrenching scene comes right at the start, to be revisited in fuller context later with when stronger heartbreaking results (make sure you grab some tissues).
At the same time, you linger and wish for the film to dive a bit deeper. For a film that goes into fine detail in charting the daily, aspects of watching a friend slowly fade away. Going back to the jumping timelines, “Our Friend” moves around a little too quickly that it rarely offers the chance to let us feel the weight of what everyone is going through. While another of the film’s biggest struggles, is denying us a sequence of where Matt and Dane’s relationship is solidified, instead we’re just told the two become best friends. I wanted more about their friendship. The somber film is set to a soundtrack featuring classic tracks from R.E.M, Steve Winwood and Led Zeppelin (the film had gotten approval of Led Zeppelin’s music just days before the film’s release at TIFF).
“Our Friend” is a film about that one friend we all wish we had, who gives up everything to help his best friends through the most difficult event in their lives. No matter how hard you try, “Our Friend” will reduce you to mush and will leave you wrecked. The lesson of self sacrifice and in being there for one another is something we could all use right now in the world. “Our Friend” is one of the years best films with three stellar performances.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)