It’s safe to say that a movie about a young mother dying of cancer might not be one that someone would race to watch. It certainly is asking a lot of an audience to voluntarily put themselves through the emotional wringer like that, especially in the general emotional state we are all in right now. However, if there is a director who can find a way to make a movie about cancer not only appealing, but also inviting and even funny, it’s Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and Our Friend is just that movie.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is still devastatingly sad, there’s no way around it. But Cowperthwaite, who previously demonstrated the skill to tell audiences a tough but emotionally satisfying film in Megan Leavey, mines every bit of humanity and comedy in the suffering of Our Friend, massively aided by three incredibly strong performances by Jason Segel, Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson.
Written by Brad Ingelsby, who himself is having a good year, having also written the Ben Affleck-starrer The Way Back, Our Friend is based on an Esquire article written by journalist Matt Teague, about Teague’s best friend, Dane, who moved in with his family when his wife Nicole was dying of cancer. Dane puts his whole life on hold to assist his friends in their time of need, helping out with the Teague’s two young daughters and giving Matt the time he needs to focus on Nicole.
You’ve seen movies about friendship before, but what Dane offers to Matt and Nicole sets a new definition for the word. Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite tiptoe around the fact that Dane is a bit of a man-child who can’t really get his life together, and this opportunity to distract himself from his own issues seem tailor-made for his personality and desire for avoidance, but that doesn’t detract from the effectiveness of the story. What makes everything work, despite some sanitizing of the true brutality of cancer, is how perfect Jason Segel is as Dane. Segel is cast perfectly as the lovable and funny semi-loser with a heart of gold, expanding on characters we’ve seen him play before in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man. He is the audience’s guide through the pain, and Segel’s charm and sensitivity are the perfect counterbalance to the suffering. He truly has never been better.
As the couple enduring one of the worst things that can happen to a young family, Affleck and Johnson are also both extremely effective. Affleck is at his best when playing an emotionally stunted, somewhat selfish and restricted characters, and he hits pay dirt again here, giving Matt a nice, well-rounded combination of unlikability, aloofness and seriousness, but Cowperthwaite allows Affleck to expand his repertoire a little more, getting him to relax a bit more than we’re used to seeing, even finding moments of humor and sincerity. But it is Affleck’s always-serious and Eeyore-like sadness that provides the perfect counterbalance to Segel’s carefree and warm-hearted optimism and makes Our Friend so appealing. After all, Our Friend is not a movie about cancer, it’s a movie about friendship, and Affleck and Segel are perfectly matched.
Johnson, for her part, plays Nicole without much flair, and gives the movie the emotional core from which everything and everyone else can flow from. There is also a strong supporting cast, including Cherry Jones, Isabella Kai and an all-too-brief appearance by Gwendoline Christie that is a highlight of the film.
Our Friend isn’t as hard to watch as you might think, mainly because Cowperthwaite and Ingelsby focus the film on the characters and relationships more than the cancer, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a light-hearted romp. Watching a young family fall apart and two young children lose their mother is, well, we all saw Terms of Endearment. While Our Friend is a far cry from that Oscar-winning film, it does have plenty of its own charms, especially Jason Segel’s wonderfully human and warm performance, and Cowperthwaite’s deft hand. While the narrative device Ingelsby chooses of jumping around in and out of flashbacks is a bit clunky, the overall effect is positive and many of this film’s weaknesses are forgiven by its sincerity. It’s nice to see a movie where humans take care of each other and where love is shown in so many different ways. I’ll take a movie like that any day, especially now.