Tag Archives: B

OUR FRIEND

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  

Grade: B

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.     

MY LITTLE SISTER (SCHWESTERLEIN)

Producer: Ruth Waldburger   Directors: Stéphanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond   Screenplay: Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond   Cast: Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen,  Noah Tscharland  and Moritz Gottwald  Distributor: Film Movement

Grade: B

A dramatically wrenching but, for the most part, sensitively told story of twins confronting one’s potentially terminal illness, this second film from the writing-directing team of Stéphanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond avoids mawkishness while delivering a strong emotional impact. 

Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger play Lisa and Sven Nielsen; he’s two whole minutes older than she.  He’s a famous stage actor, long active at Berlin’s Schaubühne, who is suffering from leukemia.  She is a playwright who has put her writing on hold to accompany her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) to the Swiss city of Leysin, where he’s taken a post as headmaster at a posh prep school.  They have two adorable children, Linne-Lu and Noah (Linne-Lu Lungershausen and Noah Tscharland).

Lisa has travelled to Berlin to provide a bone marrow transplant for Sven, a treatment looked on with optimism by his doctors.  Because their mother Kathy (Marthe Keller), who was also involved in theatre, seems incapable of caring for her son, Lisa takes him back to Leysin, where he’s welcomed reasonably well by Martin and enthusiastically by his niece and nephew.

Unfortunately, his condition worsens, and finally it’s determined that the marrow transplant has not has the desired effect.  Doctors suggest some alternate strategies, but Sven decides to decline them, preferring to accept what he considers inevitable.

Lisa chooses to accompany him back to Berlin, exacerbating a conflict that’s already erupted between her and Martin.  (When they’d moved to Switzerland, he’d agreed that that it would be a temporary relocation, after which they’d return to Berlin.  Now he’s reneging on the promise, reluctant to give up his cushy post and arguing that she can, after all, write anywhere.)  She takes the children with her, setting up an inevitable confrontation. 

But Lisa is not merely intent on nursing Sven.  She wants to encourage his recovery by getting him back onstage.  She’d already tried to convince David (Thomas Ostermeier), unsuccessfully, that he should take on the role of Hamlet now entrusted to his erstwhile understudy (Moritz Gottwald).  Now she proposes to write a piece designed for her brother—a monologue based on Hansel and Gretel.  David rejects the idea.  And Martin shows up to reclaim the kids. 

All of this is dramatic, but it never becomes melodramatic, because of the cultivated direction of Chuat and Reymond and the superbly nuanced performances by Hoss and Eidinger, who even look remarkably alike.  Keller adds some semi-comic garrulity to the mix, and the children are charming.  Albinus and Ostermeier are both fine, though neither is as distinctive as the others.

There are a few missteps in “My Little Sister,” most notably a paragliding sequence that’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Filip Zumbrunn but in narrative terms seems more like a stunt than a necessity.  Otherwise the technical side is excellent, with Myriam Rachmuth’s editing particularly sharp.  Both Marie-Claude Lang Brenguier’s production design and the score—consisting of original music by Christian Garcia-Gaucher and some classical insertions, including Brahms’s song  “Schwesterlein” (or “Little Sister”)—are excellent.

“My Little Sister” doesn’t pull its punches and as such can be hard to watch, but by avoiding sentimentality it remains honest and direct.