This movie has to be one of the most underrated of the year, but I’ll admit that I’m not the most impartial critic when it comes to stories about mothers dying of cancer. I lost my own mother to the disease twenty years ago, and I appreciate movies that look at the experience honestly. I felt that this movie did, which surprised me, because the reviews from film festivals described a film that was a weepie, overly sentimental mess. As a result, Our Friend was released in January, dumped in the theaters before anyone was really going back, and placed on streaming at a premium price. Now it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and I hope it will get a second chance on the platform. I started watching it on a whim, thinking I would turn it off after twenty minutes, but instead I found myself immersed in a beautifully acted and directed ensemble film about friendship, ambition, marriage, and dying.
Based on an award-winning essay by journalist Matthew Teague, Our Friend is about the death of Teague’s wife, Nicole, who passed away from cancer in her mid-thirties, leaving behind two young girls. During the worst part of her illness and treatment, a family friend, Dane Faucheaux, came to live with them to help Teague care for his wife and children. It was an extraordinary act of generosity that grew out of Dane’s friendship with both Matt and Nicole. Our Friend unfolds over a non-linear timeline, going back and forth in time to show how the friendship developed over the years, as well as the ups and downs in the Matt and Nicole’s marriage. It’s a rare portrait of a friendship that defies dramatic cliches, perhaps because it comes from real life. Although Matt, Dane, and Nicole have conflicts with each other, this isn’t a love triangle, and there isn’t secret disfunction at play. Like a lot of great friendships, theirs is one of affinity and circumstance. Unlike most of Nicole and Matt’s friends, Dane is unmarried, and without children. He’s a little bit adrift in his life when Nicole gets sick, and not particularly attached to his work. When he realizes that Matt and Nicole need his help, he takes time off because he can, and because it’s more meaningful to him than his job.
Is this a sappy set-up? Maybe, but it worked for me, mainly because of the lead performances. At first blush, I thought Dakota Johnson was too young to play the part of Nicole, but Johnson showed me how Nicole really was youthful, not only chronologically but also in terms of her personality. Nicole is a performer through and through, an exuberant, outgoing person who stars in local theater productions in Fairhope, Louisiana. She’s pretty, charming, and a real people-pleaser, the kind of woman who everyone thinks is their best friend. Matt, meanwhile, is driven and self-contained, a journalist who starts out as a local reporter in Fairhope, then quickly distinguishes himself and becomes a foreign correspondent. He doesn’t hesitate to put himself first, and Affleck doesn’t shy away from Matt’s selfish side. He doesn’t play Matt as a sainted husband, a choice echoed by Jason Segel, who has the most difficult role as Dane, the friend whose behavior actually is kind of saintly–or maybe, as others suggest, a bit weird? Segel has a gentle goofiness that he leans into, especially in his interactions with Nicole’s daughters, who need someone in their life that isn’t serious or depressed. The thing is, Dane struggles with depression, and in one of the screenplay’s flashbacks, we see an episode when he was very close to giving into despair. It would be too simple to say that Dane helps the Teague family in order to help himself, but in his performance Segel seems to suggest that Dane’s own experience with big emotions is what allows him to tolerate the sadness that Matt and the children are confronting.
I gather that many critics didn’t like Our Friend because it was missing the raw honesty of Teague’s essay, which detailed the physical toll that the disease took on Nicole’s body. I haven’t read Teague’s essay, so I don’t bring that baggage to this movie, but as a writer I know that you can put things on the page that are harsher than what you can show visually. One thing I thought Our Friend got right was balancing the devastating sadness of Nicole’s diagnosis and suffering with her relative youth. There had to be depictions of joy, especially in a household that still revolved around school-aged children. Although it wasn’t made explicit in the dialogue, it was clear that Matt and Nicole needed Dane to help them hold it together for their kids. He could be silly with the girls in a way they couldn’t, and, most importantly, he could give Matt and Nicole time away from parenting. Even if Our Friend wasn’t brutally frank about the physical realities of cancer, it was quite explicit about the emotional exhaustion that families face when caregiving, and the need for help and perspective from people outside of the family unit. We should all be so lucky to have a friend like Dane, or to be that friend to someone else.