In 2012, Matthew Teague found out that his wife, Nicole, was going to die. She’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer; when the surgeon went in to remove tumors, however, he’d discovered that the disease had spread everywhere. Matthew was a journalist for The Atlantic. Nicole had been an actor when they were living in New Orleans, which is where she had met Dane, a theater-tech guy; after an early, awkward moment in which he’d asked her out, unaware that she was married, the three of them became close friends.
Over the years, Dane would often help watch their kids when Matt went away on long assignments. So when Nicole was told she had maybe a year left, the couple’s buddy thought nothing of dropping everything, moving in with them and doing what he could to pitch in. It takes a village to aid a family in processing an incalculable loss. Or, at the very least, one steadfast pal who stands by you for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
Based on Teague’s real-life story — and “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” his award-winning Esquire article on the experience — Our Friend is an attempt to tell this tale of the extraordinary lengths that someone who truly has your back will go to, via an old-fashioned tearjerker template and a movie-star cast. Those factors alone are enough to activate even a casual viewer’s knee-jerk cynicism. (Or a critic’s, something which Teague has taken issue with in an oddly public clapback piece.)
The fact that this attempt to refashion IRL tragedy into entertainment is not just a heaving, sopping sapfest is a testament to all involved, notably the cast and filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, best known for winning over hearts and minds with 2013’s save-the-whales documentary Blackfish. Yes, there’s the sort of blatant manipulation of emotional pressure points and full-frontal heartstring assaults you expect with a movie like this. But there’s also a sense of trying to bring the good and the bad (if not the more outright ugly) parts of this story to the screen with a sense of resolute dignity, restraint and even something like a sense of taste at unexpected moments. It’s not trying to soft pedal what happened to the Teagues and this extended member of their family, nor is it trying to whip things into soap-operatic delirium. The balance it tiptoes between these two poles is far more impressive than you’d expect.
And you do get the sorrow and the pity that Matthew and Nicole experience as they attempt to endure this terminal illness, courtesy of Casey Affleck pitching the former in muted-grief mode (the actor’s not going into full Manchester by the Sea rage and numbness here, but he’s close) and Dakota Johnson not playing the deteriorating latter to the rafters, even as her decline steepens. Yet you also get other aspects of their life together, from the rockier moments — there’s talk of an affair — and the bliss they’ve experienced before time began running out.
As for Dane, casting Jason Segel to play the best friend who’ll do everything from put the family dog down to fix the kids lunch ends up paying out dividends. He’s an actor who excels in lovable fuck-ups, and while his goofy-uncle/loyal compadre may have had some conspicuous edges sanded off, he lets you understand that this guy hasn’t got his shit together at all. Even when the script by Brad Ingelsby keeps prodding him into St. Segal territory, you get the feeling he’s less interested in halo-polishing then looking at the places where that angelic crown is tarnished.
You can’t blame any of them for Our Friend‘s rare dips into maudlin sentimentality, or for the detours the movie takes that drag it into touchy-feely territory (we love Gwendoline Christie, but the sequences involving Segel and her German hiker would have been best left on the cutting floor). There always seems to be something — the unexpected, and unexpectedly effective use, of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” to score a rough sequence; an exchange that swerves away from shameless pathos and into more complicated emotional terrain — that gently lifts this drama out of a grief-porn gulch. More often than not, it trusts that the wallop of the story itself is enough to keep folks invested, and avoids goosing viewers unnecessarily into laughter and tears and life lessons. It takes a road less traveled to the inevitable farewells, and that alone separates from its more waterworks-pandering peers.
We as a society have a hard time processing death, and have been taught to use a certain vocabulary when mourning our lost family members and loved ones. Like the essay that gave birth to Our Friend, it starts off as one thing and ends up as an ode to one hell of a BFF for the ages. (Being a great friend when your wife is dying means never having to say you’re sorry.) Yet its strength really does lie in its ability to recognize grief, in all of its raggedness and messiness, and not shy away from it. It’s a sensation that, over the last year, many of us are all too familiar with — and that, had Cowperthwaite’s movie been more blatantly exploitative of the Teagues’ experience at this moment in our history, might have warranted torches and pitchforks. It does not. There’s a surprising comfort in seeing this portrait of dealing with death not as escapism but as a brutal fact. This may indeed have played differently when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019. But its rawness suits the here and now all too well.