In 2015, writer Matt Teague had an article published in Esquire entitled “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” that focused on the roughly two-year period that his wife Nicole suffered and ultimately died from cancer. The couple’s mutual best friend, Dane Faucheux, offered to come and help out for a couple of weeks, taking care of their two young daughters and just generally providing any comfort he was able to in this period in their lives. But after the two weeks was over, Dane just stayed until even after Nicole passed away, and while Matt began writing about the parts of living with a dying person that no one told him about, as you might deduce from the article’s title, the piece ended up being about what it means to have a friend as caring and thoughtful as Dane.
The film version of this story, Our Friend, features Casey Affleck as the beleaguered writer, Dakota Johnson as Nicole, and Jason Segel as Dane, in a role he seemed almost destined to play, able to combine his long-time professional desire to tackle drama while still tapping into the charm and humor that he has shown us since key early roles in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Under the guidance of filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Megan Leavey, the great doc Blackfish), working from a screenplay by The Way Back writer Brad Ingelsby, Our Friend is not just one of the most honest and deeply felt films I’ve seen in recent years about dealing with a heartbreaking cancer diagnosis but it also profiles what kind of person would simply give over the direction of their own life in order to take care of someone else.
One of the ways in which the film is honest is by making it clear that Dane didn’t really have much of a life before offering his time and emotional support to the Teague family. He worked at a sporting goods store that no one believed would be his actual career, dated a series of great women that all left him because he couldn’t or wouldn’t commit, and wandered aimlessly through life trying to figure out what his purpose was. The film jumps around in its chronology, using Nicole’s cancer diagnosis as ground zero (“two years before the diagnosis,” “six months after the diagnosis”) for its storytelling, since all things change when that occurs. We examine the history of this friendship, beginning with the day Dane and Matt meet, and while they don’t always live in the same place, Dane is good about checking in. We get the sense that he uses this connection as a way to remind himself that people out there care about him.
Eventually we’re able to piece together both the progression of this cancer and the much longer progression of the friendship, and slowly but surely, the fuller picture of these people as individuals comes together. Dane’s story is much darker in places, especially when he leaves his home to hike the Grand Canyon, where he might possibly be contemplating suicide, only to be saved by a fellow traveler (Gwendoline Christie) whom he just happens to run into exactly when he needs to. We also learn about an affair that nearly destroys the Teague’s marriage, and because of the disjointed timeline, the filmmaker lets us believe it’s one person in particular who committed the act since that person had more opportunities to do so. Not all of the scenes have to do with the cancer directly, but they all serve the greater story of the tight-knit bond these three share that never breaks, even as some of their other friends and family fall away as Nicole’s illness gets worse.
Our Friend isn’t afraid to show us the flaws in all of its characters: Dane’s aimless existence, Matt working too hard and out of town too often, and Nicole hiding how bad her cancer is from her extended family. As a result, they never offer to help out and she ends up exhausted for days every time they visit; it’s another example of how Cowperthwaite keeps these characters honest.
The tears don’t really come until the arrival of Faith Pruett (Cherry Jones), a home health care worker who is described as an “angel” by doctors. She arrives in Nicole’s final days, and the film spins into psychological chaos for a time, with Dane holding things together with Faith’s guidance. Faith’s knowledge, honesty and compassion carry Nicole and her family through their last moments together, and while it’s highly emotional, the false sentimentality is kept at bay in a truly beautiful manner.
I know there are people (especially critics) who hate the very idea of being emotionally manipulated, but when it’s done in service to a story like this, it can be something extraordinary. You can judge Dane’s life however you’d like, but he aside put moving forward with it to take care of his friends, and the impact that had on all of them is unimaginable and life changing. All of the performance are impressive, but there is something so satisfying about watching Segel standout in such an unassuming way. He’s not playing to the cheap seats; if anything, he’s doing his best to be himself, act and react the way he really would. The divisions between Segel and Dane are tough to spot, even at Dane’s lowest moments. In so many ways, Our Friend sets the bar higher for what compassion, kindness, and empathy are meant to be. Such standards may be too high for some, and that’s a shame. But this film is a perfect blueprint for friendship in the toughest of times.
The film is now playing in select Chicagoland theaters and is available via VOD.
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