An honest and touching tale about the bonds we share.
Everyone has a favorite entry in the terminal illness genre. I don’t mean “favorite” in the conventional sense as much as I mean that there’s always one title above all others with this kind of storyline which manages to convey the emotional and reflective journey of its ill character with dignity rather than cheap tugs at the heartstrings. My personal “favorite” within this genre remains 1998’s One True Thing in which big city reporter Renee Zellweger travels home to help out when her mother (Meryl Streep) becomes stricken with cancer. That film in particular stood out since it put the two characters on an even emotional playing field as they both began to finally see who the other was for the first time, holding nothing back in the process. Our Friend, the latest entry into this sub-genre is different in almost every way, save for the disease in question. But it too is thankfully also less concerned with talking about the disease that’s challenging the characters so much as examining who the characters become and what they mean to each other as a result of it.
Nicole (Dakota Johnson), Matt (Casey Affleck) and Dane (Jason Segel) have been best friends for years. However when Nicole gets sick, Dane puts his complicated life on hold and moves in with his friends to take some of the burden off of what life has become for her and Matt’s family. As time passes and Nicole gets worse, the bond shared between the three of them becomes transformed in ways none of them could have foreseen.
The terminal illness genre is one which is riddled with cliches, too many to name in fact. Consultation scenes, hospital scenes, doctor scenes, family trying to hold it together scenes; they’re always going to be part of the story, which is only fair. The downside is that those tropes can’t help but make such films feel standard, eventually diminishing the humanity being told. Our Friend knows of this pitfall and tries desperately to avoid it in as many turns as possible, including having Nicole storm off in a huff rather than face her illness and even sending Dane off on a camping trip. The biggest way in which the film tries to stand apart from other similar titles is in its structure. Foregoing anything resembling a linear timeline, Our Friend jumps around between years at such a breakneck speed, that keeping up and keeping track quickly becomes a lost cause. The film isn’t just content to hop around between the relationship of the three main characters, but it also seems hellbent on jumping around between the different stages of Nicole’s disease. While one can appreciate the technique as a novel way of telling what is otherwise a standard story it cannot help but rob audiences of going on the full emotional journey alongside Matt, Nicole and Dane. Too often in Our Friend, the audience is forced to try and decipher where they are in the story instead of being allowed to bask in the warmth of whatever human moment is happening.
Even without the useless and distracting intercutting back and forth, there’s enough about Our Friend that would have set it apart in its own right. First of all, the film’s soft look and unobtrusive nature gives it a true intimacy. The proceedings haven’t been given an unrealistic sheen or a cold harshness, but rather a loving filter that can’t help but radiate warmth and honesty in every frame. Beyond this, the film proves itself to be a movie that is brave enough to present characters who are all grey in one way or another, be it through their actions of the past or the reactions to the situation they find themselves in. This shows that the markers of Our Friend are hands down more concerned that the people they present are as real as the events they are experiencing. If there’s one aspect that isn’t as apparent from the get go that the film wisely lets wash over its audience, it’s the bond which exists between people beyond family ties. Seeing Dane’s devotion to Nicole and Matt and how he is likewise suffering just as much grief and sorrow as any member of that family would is one which the film beautifully makes clear. In fact, it’s the emotional toll which may in fact be Our Friend’s greatest asset. It opts not to focus on Nicole losing her hair or throwing up after a chemo session because it knows everyone watching has seen those moments; and they know they’re happening. Instead, it focuses on the emotional side of the experience and how the journey is powerful enough to transform everyone, making them older and altering the very shape of their souls in the process.
Each of the three leads finds the right amount of emotion and pathos to pull off their respective roles. At the same time, the trio’s chemistry is so natural, they not only come off believable as friends, but also ensure they give each other what they need as performers. Johnson wisely doesn’t launch into a great many theatrics, instead making Nicole a woman of peace and strength. One scene in which she beckons to her daughter hiding in a dark hallway is beyond touching. Affleck could have easily tapped into his Manchester by the Sea character but instead makes Matt a man partially accepting of his wife’s condition as he tries to hold his family together. The level of emotional guardedness from Affleck is perfect and gives the character an air of humanity that’s unmistakable. Finally, Segel, a skilled comedian if there ever was one, adds some much needed levity to the film without sacrificing any of the earnest weight the story deserves. Watching him, especially in the film’s opening scene, reminds the world of what a truly talented actor he is.
There’s a subplot in Our Friend in which an extremely depressed Dane goes off on said camping trip where he meets a fellow hiker played by Gwendoline Christie who somehow gets the feeling that he’s suicidal. The whole point of the sequence, as far as I can tell anyhow, is to accentuate how unfulfilling the character’s life has been up to that point, not fully realizing what he’s gotten from the people in it. It’s a sweet sequence, if a tad unnecessary. Yet it’s also further proof about why Our Friend is worth seeing. No matter what is happening on the screen, there isn’t a moment within this movie which feels false or manufactured for the audience’s sake. There’s no solid introduction to the various stages of Nicole’s condition and no hurling of cheap dramatic twists at the audience. Just like with the disease itself, and life in general, everything in Our Friend just happens.