Our Friend is messy and imperfect, not unlike real life

Physically sanitized portrait of disease still packs an emotional punch

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Twenty minutes into Our Friend, I still wasn’t certain if I wanted to be its friend.

The drama, based on a true story that was turned into a 2015 personal essay in Esquire magazine, opens with the news that Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has terminal cancer and is going to die. So, not an upbeat tale. But I can handle that.

Then I see that her husband, Matt, is played by Casey Affleck, pitching his performance somewhere between the morose uncle he played in Manchester By the Sea, and the dead guy in A Ghost Story. Seriously mopey.

And then there’s Jason Segel as their best friend, Dane. He’s a comic actor, sure, but with his own tendency to shade toward melancholy. And he’s a real sad sack in this one, with a history of asking out women who aren’t interested or are already married. This is, ironically, how he first meets Matt and Nicole.

But somewhere around the 25-minute mark (the movie runs a little over two hours) things started to gel. The premise is that, when Nicole is diagnosed with cancer in 2012, Dane pitches in to help out, eventually becoming an honorary family member, helping to look after the dog and their two young daughters. (For a brief moment I feared he was going to turn into a latter-day Mrs. Doubtfire.)

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And when things get really bad, Dane leaves his job and girlfriend in New Orleans and drives two states over to Alabama, where he moves in with the ailing couple to help them see things through to – well, to the end. Mutual friends see an old college buddy turned couch-surfing freeloader. Matt realizes it’s something else entirely. (The full title of the Esquire piece is The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word.)

The original article is easy to find online and well worth your time

Our Friend was adapted by Brad Ingelsby, who also wrote The Way Back for that other Affleck; it was one of the last movies to open widely in Canada last March before the pandemic set in. (There’s a weird in-joke in this one that has journalist Matt writing an article also called The Way Back.) It was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who has traveled the true-story-tearjerker road before with 2017’s Megan Leavey, about the bond between a U.S. Marine and her combat dog.

The tale is well told but oddly fragmented. Every few minutes we’re given a new on-screen title – December 2012, Year of Diagnosis. 2008, Four Years Before Diagnosis. Summer 2014, Two Years Since Diagnosis. And so on, back and forth and with no apparent pattern. It’s frustrating, because it requires the viewer to do (admittedly simple) math, and to try to keep up with the state of Dane’s love life, which I eventually stopped doing.

And the only time the technique seemed to add to the storytelling was when Dane asked Matt about “the affair.” We’d already seen Matt turn down a romantic offer from a colleague while reporting from Pakistan. Did he later stray? Did Nicole? Wait and see, but it’s never a good sign when a viewer starts wondering whether a strict chronological edit might help the movie.

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There are some other issues with Our Friend. A read through the original article – easy to find online and well worth your time – reveals details about Nicole’s cancer that would have, if dramatized, turned the movie into an early Cronenberg body horror.

But while the film may sanitize some of the physical aspects of disease, it hits home on the emotional front. Never mind the adult performers; 14-year-old Isabella Kai is wonderful as eldest daughter Molly, slumped under the weight of losing a parent before she’s even out of high school. And there’s a scene of Nicole, deep in her illness and buzzed on painkillers, lobbing such hurtful, hateful words at her husband it could break your heart right through the screen.

These are the moments that will stick with you after Our Friend, and give you permission to cry during it. It’s a messy, imperfect movie, but so is life, and so is death. So in that very important respect it captures something real.

Our Friend is available Jan. 22 on demand.

4 stars out of 5

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