The classic tearjerker is often so much more now. The psyche of sadness has become much more of a focus, and the grand melodrama that made countless tears fall for decades are becoming rarer and rarer. Of course, they still exist, they’ve just been enhanced. Take Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) or Barry Jenkins’ If Beal Street Could Talk (2018). Both are setting out to make you cry, but they also do so much more than that. The classics I’m talking about are Titanic or The Notebook; they don’t make em’ like that anymore. And whilst not quite so epic, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s The Friend is a heartbreaking true story presented through the lens of the classic tearjerker.
Our Friend is about a trio of people connected through the hardest period of their lives. Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck) seem to be living their dream; married, kids, a house, and jobs they have a passion for. Then it happens. In one moment, the dream is shattered; Nicole is diagnosed with cancer. We see all this as a mosaic, jumping through time to ultimately gain the full picture. And the most important part of that picture comes when, while caring for his two daughters and his ailing wife, everything becomes too much for Matt. Enter Dane (Jason Segel), Nicole and Matt’s best friend from college. From here begins the evocative tale of a man doing all he can to hold the pieces of a struggling family together for no personal gain.
This specific type of heartbreak is not easy to turn to film. There’s something cruelly personal about cancer despite its all-encompassing nature. So, showing this intense distortion of family life can be hard to make watchable. But with an ever-steady hand, Cowperthwaite skillfully finds the balance between emotion and perversion to deliver a raw and moving experience. And the key to this success lies in the ever-capable hands of the brilliant Jason Segel. Yes, this is a role very much cast to type, but when an actor exudes so much kindness as he does, why not keep him in similar roles? It is this very kindness that flows through Our Friend like a soothing current, ushering it into the realm of genuine poignancy.
Beside him, Johnson and Affleck are unflinching in their depictions. This is still very much a sanitised movie depiction of cancer. But, two or three moments arise where the pair, alongside Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, who play their daughters, create evocative moments, highlighting where Our Friend is at its strongest. Not when dealing directly with the consequences of having cancer on an individual, which is only really shown at the end. But more how cancer destroys everything on the periphery as well: picking up the kids late from school, not cleaning the house in months, and most harrowingly of all, having to explain it all to your children. In those moments, Cowperthwaite finds true insight and justifies telling this story the same way the original article did.
The issues arise in the length of the picture. On paper, 124 minutes for such a story seems justified, but once you’re in the midst of it, things begin to drag ever so slightly. This is most felt anytime the characters deal with the affair subplot Nicole and Matt take us through. It’s handled with the least gravitas of any aspect of the movie, and it fails to amount to anything important. And while it’s a vital part of the true story, I can’t help but feel it should have been cut and replaced with more on how Dane gave up his life and home to help his friends, a subplot only briefly dealt with.
Our Friend is a powerful true story of human kindness. And although it may drag, the exceptional work of three leads makes it well worth watching.
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