Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s cancer drama Our Friend cuts right to the chase: Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is going to die. She just got the news. It’s going to happen very, very soon. Six months, tops. While she pulls herself together, husband Matt (Casey Affleck) reads over a list of phrases not to say: Mom’s going to sleep. Mom’s going on vacation. Mom’s going away for a while. There can’t be a single shred of hope for her survival when they tell their daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw). The sisters are right outside with Dane (Jason Segel), Nicole and Matt’s best-friend-turned-lifeline since she got her diagnosis a year ago. They’re looking for raccoons in the fading twilight, which is Dane’s attempt at helping the girls enjoy what will always be remembered as the last thing they were doing before their world came crashing down on them.
Matt appears in the doorway and calls for the girls to come inside. Dane stays on the porch and closes his eyes, a futile attempt to shut out the cries coming from the house. Even though he’s outside instead of in, Dane is practically family at this point. It was evident they would develop a lasting bond from the moment Nicole, Matt, and Dane initially crossed paths, and it’s fully realized there on that porch as Dane grapples with the sheer magnitude of that moment, all that preceded it, and all that’s sure to follow. He gave up everything to be there with Nicole and Matt and the kids, set aside his own aspirations to support them through Nicole’s years-long battle with cancer, put his personal life on pause for the betterment of the Teague family. Taking the girls to school, making meals, keeping the house clean, acting as full-time babysitter and caretaker whenever Matt had to travel for work — these things don’t make Dane a hero or a savior, they just make Dane Dane.
Our Friend opens in 2013, but, chronologically speaking, the story starts back in 2000 and stretches to 2014. In the same vein as Matt’s real-life article that inspired the film, screenwriter Brad Ingelsby uses a non-linear structure to tell the tale of the Teagues. After that stark opening, Ingelsby takes the viewer back to the time Nicole first introduced Matt to Dane — a bar in New Orleans, 13 years prior. From there, it’s back to the future — the end of December 2012, not long after Nicole’s diagnosis. It hops back and forth like this, forward and backward in time, filling in the gaps of this true-to-life tragedy at its own delicate pace. Yet, despite the fact that the viewer knows where it ends up, the decade-and-a-half-long journey is no less impactful than if it were recounted chronologically. Regardless of what the audience may think about having the fate of one of the central characters revealed at the start, the timeline-hopping makes the punches land even harder (not unlike Greta Gerwig’s 2019 spin on Little Women). By revealing the place their collective story is headed, each little detail that is added about the lives of Nicole, Matt, and Dane feels that much more poignant.
These details alone would not be enough to carry an entire feature, though — they’d be nothing without Johnson, Affleck, and Segel embodying them with nuance and care. Our Friend is committed to realism, and as a result, its three stars are committed to grounding their performances at every opportunity. Johnson, given her character’s prognosis, is inclined to go to extremes more often than the boys, but because she’s offset by those subdued turns from Affleck and Segel, it’s almost like she gets a pass to go there. When the going gets tough and some actors would choose to crank things up to 11, Affleck and Segel choose to keep their characters in the far more reasonable 5-to-7 range.
It's a great call on the part of Gabriela Cowperthwaite, especially considering this is technically only her second time directing a cast of actors. (Cowperthwaite’s debut, the highly controversial and globally resonant 2013 killer whale documentary Blackfish, is officially the outlier now that she’s directed two narrative films in the years since.) It’s remarkable what she’s able to get out of this trio, and it’s singlehandedly responsible for the film’s beating heart. Affleck taps into that same emotional weight he brought to Manchester by the Sea (2016), Segel sets a new personal best after his impressive dramatic work in The End of the Tour (2015) and The Discovery (2017), and Johnson continues to prove that her 50 Shades tenure deserves the same kind of polite erasure that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have earned post-Twilight saga. Seeing them side by side by side, it’s hard to believe critics largely dismissed Our Friend outright at its 2019 Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
Included in the same lineup as Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), a similarly heartfelt based-on-a-true-story about a journalist that’s also filled to the brim with earnest emotions, Our Friend did not go over nearly as well as it should have at TIFF. (Keep in mind that A Beautiful Day received almost universal praise that very week). Words like “dishonest,” “sanitized,” “scattershot,” and even “out of touch” were lobbed at Cowperthwaite’s film, and it’s worth asserting — firmly — that Our Friend is none of these things. It’s rare to come across a drama that shows empathy instead of sympathy like this. Ingelsby deserves a lot of credit for crafting such an unpretentiously sensitive story, which shouldn’t be a surprise to viewers who remember the film he wrote starring the other Affleck brother, The Way Back (2020). What’s more, Cowperthwaite’s controlled direction and cinematographer Joe Anderson’s subtle golden sheen make for the ideal translation of Ingelsby’s script. It might be a tough watch at times, and understandably so, but Our Friend stands above other entries in this subgenre by being far more emotionally fulfilling than emotionally draining.
Our Friend is now available to rent from major online platforms.