The painstaking physical and emotional tolls of cancer often find themselves as the subject of big-screen offerings. Given its seriousness and vast impact, the disease can be a challenging matter to depict onscreen, with several awards-bait efforts tripping due to weepy-levels of melodrama. After debuting at TIFF all the way back in 2019, the cancer dramedy Our Friend finally finds the light of day after enduring the stressors of festival purgatory. By embracing the authentic realities behind its true story premise, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite crafts an expressive portrait of love and hardship.
Based on Matthew Teague’s thoughtful essay The Friend, Our Friend follows Matt (Casey Affleck) as he grapples with his wife Nicole’s (Dakota Johnson) recent cancer diagnosis. As their family tries to keep their head above water, their longtime-friend Dane (Jason Segel) comes to serve as a caretaker during Nicole’s strenuous battle. The film charts the trio’s unique history as they come to terms with their ongoing situation.
I am unsure how Our Friend would work with a different cast, as the central trio here is tailor-made for their heart-aching roles. Casey Affleck’s insular delivery aptly represents Matthew’s deeply-seated turmoil, with the Oscar-winning actor naturally expressing nuanced emotional beats through a mere glimpse or facial tick. It’s also pleasant to see the usually-solemn star have some fun onscreen, particularly when he’s sharing it with Jason Segel’s Dane. As Segal has exhibited numerous times before (his towering performances in The End of the Tour still ranks as one of last decade’s best), his charismatic affability always has a way to draw laughter out of the toughest circumstances.
He will always be adored as a comedic bright spot, but it’s the film’s more intimate frames where Segel exhibits his expressive abilities. His vulnerability onscreen morphs Dane from your typical goof-ball friend to someone longing for intimate connection in a judgemental world. Dakota Johnson holds the film’s dramatic weight together as Nicole, portraying the cancer diagnosis without an ounce of vanity. Johnson’s effervescent presence shapes the character’s formation considerably, as the dwindling of her vibrant energy expresses the lifeforce cancer extracts from an individual. The real secret sauce here is the trio’s equally dynamic and lived-in chemistry, oftentimes commanding the screen even when the film is at its most bare-bones.
Our Friend’s dramedy tonality could have gone haywire in the wrong hands. Under Cowperthwaite’s assured direction, the narrative’s heart-tugging aspects never reach into mawkishly insincere territory. Where a lot of directors would throw-in grand dramatic speeches or operatic score choices to misguidedly “enhance” the steaks, Cowperthwaite presents the intelligence and self-awareness to trust her material. Her emotive frames present a quiet intimacy that speaks volumes about the Teagues’ difficult process. The grieving process is a taxing beast to endure, but I am glad Cowperthwaite never forgets the love present beneath this challenging undertaking. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby also deserves praise for his deft handling of challenging sequences, marrying the tonal balance without a false moment.
Our Friend impressively nails it’s most taxing sequences, but there’s a general messiness lying outside the periphery. Ingelsby had a tall task adapting Matt, Nicole, and Dane’s life-long friendship into a two-hour narrative. While he does an admirable job conveying the major plot beats, the narrative ends up becoming too busy for its own good. Subplots like Nicole’s cheating scandal don’t inject much aside from cheap melodrama, often taking audiences away from the more compelling character dynamics at hand. Whenever the focus remains on the three, the movie is all the better for it.
Audiences may groan at the seemingly-familiar set-up, and I certainly understand the hesitation given the genre’s tendency for inauthentic truths. I don’t think that skepticism does justice to Our Friend’s soaring emotive strengths though. Imbued with sensitivity and care at every turn, this is an intelligently-drawn drama that earns its numerous tugs at the heartstrings.
Our Friend is available in theaters and on VOD
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