“Our Friend,” based on the Matthew Teague article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” retells a heartbreakingly loving story of friendship and compassion.
Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has terminal cancer. We learn this in the opening scene as Nicole and her husband, Matt (Casey Affleck), discuss the essentials of delivering the news to their two young daughters who are being entertained by family friend Dane (Jason Segel).
“Our Friend” takes us on an extraordinary journey during 10 years as the family lived and subsequently dealt with the short future ahead.
As quickly as we hear the devastating words of Nicole’s impending death, the story jumps back in time for us to experience the young couple’s blissful beginnings and comedic introduction to Dane, a hapless sweetheart who, at one time, pined for Nicole.
The three, against all odds, become inseparable and Dane finds himself as a part of a family. The story jumps back and forth in time to inform us of all that has happened in their lives, the ups and the downs, the joys and frustrations, to bring us to the pivotal point of the end.
This counterweight allows our emotions to relax and enjoy the every day banter or the arguments and issues every couple experiences, but with these bookmarks in life, we always pivot back to the fallout of the inevitable.
Occasionally, the timeline is a bit confusing as it jumps from references of five years ago or one year after the diagnosis, and while this is off-putting during the film, you realize it’s not that important to the overall story.
What is important is we glean information about the past, getting to know this couple and the incredible generosity and loyalty of their friend. Thanks to the insightfully detailed and evocative skills of writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”) who pays careful attention to each of our main characters, we can see the world through their eyes.
Dane, lacking in confidence and direction, finds meaning in his life as the fun uncle, or as he calls himself Grandma Dane, but we also see him struggling to find his own path in life. His friendship is unwavering with a deep love for the entire family; however, there’s an emotional barricade he seems to face, driving him to care for others more than for himself.
In fact, the film, originally titled “The Friend,” is much more aptly renamed as “Our Friend,” as Nicole, Matt and both children rely heavily upon Dane, which sometimes, as we see, is to his detriment.
Matt, on the other hand, dreams of being recognized as a great writer and wants to further his career, which leads to marital issues. Nicole’s theatrical focus is her only outlet, but both have missing pieces in their lives. Dane is always the sounding board, the voice of reason and the safety net they both need no matter where he is in his own life, floundering to make sense of it all.
There are plenty of moments to laugh, and to cry, as we are captivated by the giggles of the children and relate to the every day moments. “Our Friend” is a perfectly balanced story that rings true to every aspect of life, including facing death.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite delicately allows her stars to perform with all the subtleties and nuances of reality, which brings us into the picture, into their lives and to walk beside them on this journey. It’s hard to imagine any other actor having the capacity to deliver these performances other than Segel, Affleck and Johnson. They portray their characters as flawed, imperfect people who forge ahead, trying to properly play the cards they have been dealt.
Segel, while he makes us laugh and chuckle, captures our hearts as he becomes Dane — we all know someone like him — a complicated, sad soul looking for someone to guide and love him. Segel binds the entire cast together, a superglue force, who reminds us to cherish every day with those you love.
Johnson’s understated performance has incredible depth as a wife, friend and then loving mother who must wrestle with the possibility of leaving her children behind. It’s simply devastating, but Johnson finds the humanity and humility to give us a performance of a lifetime.
And Affleck, no stranger to the importance of nuanced roles, delivers with brilliance. If you’ve not walked in his character’s shoes, you will be able to better sympathize with someone who has by the time the credits roll.
Affleck shows us the trauma, anger and frustration about the inability to protect someone he loves — his children from losing their mother and his wife from succumbing to the disease. We also get a bird’s eye view of the domino effect of what cancer can do to a family — the ripples reach much further than we can imagine.
“Our Friend” reminds us of the importance of compassion and giving our time to those we love and those who are in need. The heartfelt and original yet universal story with superb performances, thanks not only to the talented actors but to a credible script and an intuitive director, makes “Our Friend” a film you need to see.
Reel Talk rating: 3½ Stars