Producers: Kevin Walsh, Michael Pruss, Ryan Stowell and Teddy Schwarzman Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite Screenplay: Brad Ingelsby Cast: Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck, Violet McGraw, Isabella Kai, Gwendoline Christie, Cherry Jones, Ahna O’Reilly, Marielle Scott and Reed Diamond Distributor: Gravitas Ventures and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s docu-drama, based on the 2015 Esquire article “The Friend” by Matthew Teague, revolves around the slow, sad death of Teague’s thirty-four-year old wife Nicole, and could easily have descended into a maudlin tearjerker. But “Our Friend,” as the story has been slightly retitled, avoids that, due partially to incisive performances by Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson as Matt and Nicole, but especially to the emphasis that Teague placed on the title character, the couple’s friend Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel).
Dane, an awkward fellow whom Nicole had gotten to know when they worked together in a local theatre group, became one of the couple’s best friends, and when Nicole was diagnosed with cancer one of the few who did not, as Matt predicted, become increasingly scare as her illness progressed. Indeed, he moved in and became an indispensable part of the family, serving as a caregiver to Nicole, bolstering Matt’s spirit when depression set in, and treating the Teague daughters Evie (Violet McGraw) and Molly (Isabella Kai) as though he were their nanny. It’s no wonder that when Nicole finally passed, he was for a time inconsolable himself.
Segel plays—or rather underplays–this selfless character remarkably well, making his own inability to sustain a romantic relationship, especially after he’s given himself over so totally to the Teagues, or to make his own family understand him, touching rather than simply peculiar. It’s a portrait of sacrifice, and while the film doesn’t attempt to analyze him, Segel succeeds in making Dane credible when in the hands of a less sensitive actor he might have come across as merely odd.
Meanwhile Affleck’s Teague is a flawed man, given to mood swings that accentuate his innate tendency to self-absorption. Matt’s emphasis on his career as a foreign correspondent, which led to frequent absences from home, is not overlooked, nor is his extreme reaction when Nicole eventually informs him of a brief affair that his treatment of her helped to explain. His nuanced, painfully perceptive work here recalls the performance in “Manchester by the Sea” that deservedly earned him an Oscar.
Johnson has the difficult task of portraying Nicole’s decline over the many months of trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy for her daughters, hiding her pain and anxiety as much as possible while gradually wasting away. The ravages of Nicole’s condition are sanitized to a considerable extent, of course; audiences would doubtlessly be unable to deal with a full depiction of the physical effects.
That places limits on the performance, but in many respects the more debilitating factor is screenwriter Brad Ingelsby’s decision to reject a straightforward chronological approach in favor of one that shifts back and forth in time, labeling each new sequence with a caption giving us month and year and noting how long before or after her diagnosis the scene is set. Though this fragmentation of the narrative might have been intended to enhance the tragic character of sudden illness, it instead dilutes the powerful inevitability of the family’s story, and though the result affects all the performers (partially because their supposed changes in age are never convincingly managed), its effect is greatest on Johnson’s.
Of the supporting cast, McGraw and Kai register strongly as the Teague daughters, and so does Cherry Jones as a calmly efficient home end-of-life caregiver who enters the scene as Nicole in the last stages of her struggle. Everyone else is at least serviceable, and the technical side of things is in good hands, with production designer Cara Brower and cinematographer Joe Anderson capturing an authentic small-town atmosphere (something made easier by actually shooting in Fairhope, Alabama, where the Teagues lived). Editor Colin Patton doesn’t manage to make all the time shifts smooth, but that’s more the result of the original structural decision of Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite rather than any deficiency on his part. But the guitar-heavy score by Rob Simonsen can get irritating, especially when supplemented by songs.
Still, despite occasional failings the film stands head and shoulders above many others on a similar theme by refusing to descend into mawkishness. Inevitably it’s a tearjerker, but in this case the tears are for the most part honestly earned.