The struggles of facing and-or revealing the truth is a hefty task no matter one’s age or place in life. Facing reality can very much even mean a confrontation with the end of all ends. Trucking head-on to the truth is exactly what the opening scene of Our Friend is, as we find Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck) on the precipice of a difficult talk with their children. Nicole, we’ll soon learn, is sick, and though it’ll be another hour before the film reveals the specific nature of what they’ll disclose, it’s clear that the discussion won’t be an easy one. At least they have one helpful instruction from the doctors: Avoid euphemisms. Give it to them straight. Because there should be no misunderstanding about what’s coming.
In this in media res prologue there is a certain irony — something that’s clear to anyone who’s read the source material, Matthew Teague’s award-winning essay The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word. In the essay, the journalist recounts the time he spent caring for his wife after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and also how his best friend, Dane Faucheux, moved in to help out during this impossible trial for the family. It’s an unblinkingly honest memoir, candidly cataloging every ugly detail — medical and psychological — to the point where a truly faithful adaptation would be more upsetting than any horror movie released in recent years. Our Friend isn’t that film. It’s sweet and involving and occasionally moving, but also fairly easier. Which is to say, it approaches the story itself rather euphemistically, handling the audience with kid gloves by eliding the most unpleasant truths of the family’s experience.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Our Friend, doesn’t so much deviate from Teague’s account as supply it a new form, a certain seriocomic feel. As the title suggests, the focus is partially on Dane (Jason Segel), a close college friend of the couple who offers to come stay at their Alabama home for a few days after Nicole’s diagnosis — an arrangement that became indefinite, as those days bled into weeks and then months and then more than a year, Dane basically pausing (if not fully abandoning) his life in New Orleans to help look after their two daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evangeline (Violet McGraw). The script, by Brad Ingelsby, introduces a flashback structure, cutting away from present-day scenes of hospital visits and worsening conditions to fill in the history of a friendship headed towards a medical crisis. In his essay, Teague makes few attempts to crack or explain Dane’s sacrifice: Among other things, it’s a grateful tribute to his friend’s selfless insistence on just being there through all the heartache and horror. Divorced of a purely first-person perspective, Our Friend strains for understanding it doesn’t always find: One can admire its dramatic theories — the faint suggestion that Dane’s endless supportiveness stemmed partially from a desire to give more meaning to his own life that’s low on romantic or professional “success” — while still feeling that Segel is playing more saint than man. The flashbacks offer backstory but not a lot of extra dimension.
Segel has, of course, spent much of his career exploring the facets of male bonding, from the goofy-sweet bromance of I Love You, Man to the pricklier quasi-friendship of The End of the Tour. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Our Friend hits its fullest stride when centering in on the relationship between Dane and Matt, finding conflict at its origins and in its margins. Affleck, too, is in his wheelhouse: Four years after his tremendous, Oscar-winning performance of crystalized guilt and grief in Manchester By the Sea, he’s playing another man numbed by unfathomable hardship. Yet Our Friend keeps us on the outside of that pain, never offering the kind of window into Teague’s heart and mind that his writing intrinsically could. Is this a case of a story perfected in its original format? The film fares best when its at its most specific, zeroing in on the dismaying inevitability of well-meaning friends disappearing when the going gets tough or moments of casual tragedy, like Matt taking note of what braiding is in anticipation of having to do that for his daughter. Other times, Cowperthwaite’s approach, rather than steep us in the nitty-gritty, often flutters through music-filled montages of bucket-list excursions and anguished embraces.
Overtime one begins to wonder if the non-linear structure is just a way to push back everything inconveniently messy in Teague’s essay, like a tough conversation it’s trying to avoid. Our Friend spares us the gory details at almost every turn, cleaning up a story whose power stemmed, heavily, from its willingness to be gruelingly truthful about what cancer can do to the body. Cowperthwaite barely seems willing to even deglamorize Johnson, who never really loses her movie-star glow, even when her character — the most underdeveloped of the film’s trio — becomes unrecognizable to those in her life. At one point, Nicole begins wearing a wig around the house to entertain visitors, doing a performance of good health rather than let anyone see the reality of her condition. It’s a good metaphor as any for the way Our Friend softens some of its own blows. Yet, with that, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments where some hits are felt. Even as its narrative is sliced up a bit too much, Our Friend provides some tender, perceptive understandings of caregiver fatigue; the journey of finding pockets of joys in heavy tragedy.
Our Friend is available on VOD