by Carole Di Tosti
With a cast boasting superb actors Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck and Jason Segel, Our Friend, shines with poignance and humor. Based on a true account by journalist Matt Teague, the indie film is about how the Teague family must deal with the crisis of Nicole Teague’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.
The film has a complicated structure that engages its viewers with flashbacks and unexpected twists after it opens with Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck) discussing how they are going to tell their two daughters what the family faces in the next months. From this juncture Brad Ingelsby spins the story backward and teases out vital development arcs that swing like a pendulum. We are propelled by Matt’s memories of the events. Part of the surprise is that we think Matt fashions the story about his exuberant wife and how she clings to normalcy for the sake of the family and predominately her daughters.
However, Matt is an unreliable narrator, and he is not intent about getting all the messy details down in the order in which they happened. Rather, the story is about Matt’s feelings and emotions, as he and the family confront circumstances related to their dynamic before the daughters were born and at critical points when the responsibilities caring for his daughters and Nicole’s caretaking intensify. When Nicole relinquishes more and more of her autonomy and vibrant personality, Matt takes on the household and finds the circumstances nearly impossible.
Interestingly, the couple’s best friend Dane (Jason Segel) who appears to be an incidental character at first, emerges as a lovable, pivotal individual crucial to the family’s working through Nicole’s cancer. His friendship with Nicole and Matt becomes familial. He lives with them and increasingly takes up the slack after Matt becomes overwhelmed with the sheer effort it takes to run their daily lives. Dane becomes the rock, the one who cheers on the daughters when they are angry with their father. He is the shoulder of comfort and the one with ready humor when they all feel down.
The interactions are beautifully portrayed by Affleck and Johnson who inhabit Matt and Nicole and chronicle the highpoints and low points of their marriage. Special recognition goes to Segel who is amazing and authentic as Dane. In a surprise twist which indicates Dane’s personal trials, he has a chance meeting with someone on a desolate, potentially dangerous hike. The discovery and revelation between Dane and the hiker are just wow. And the word of wisdom the female hiker gives Dane, sustains him through his loneliness, and love for Nicole and Matt as he watches and participates in their family tragedy.
As Dane sacrifices his own life to care for the family, his decision, which others characterize as weakness, becomes the linchpin of the family’s strength and togetherness. It is his substance which helps to encourage happiness and joy through the cataclysm that Matt, Nicole, and the daughters experience during Nicole’s emotional and physical withering into death.
Dane’s love for the family is understated, powerful and profoundly realized by Segel who steals the film. I was particularly hit head-on by the conclusion. In their last scene together Affleck and Segel are subtle, alive, spiritual. They both hit a still point that is ineffable and universal to all close human relationships that cannot be articulated but is intensely felt. In that final scene we understand how Matt’s writing of the events that impossibly solidify his life, marriage and loss, coalesce around friend Dane. Segel fits every inch of a wonder and closeness that is eternal.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, 2013) teases out striking and poignant performances. Cherry Jones’ is one of them. Jones appears for perhaps 15 minutes of screen time, but she is the gatekeeper between life and death as the Hospice Nurse, Faith Pruett. Her strong presence, understanding and cheerfulness is like commanding with velvet, both iron and soft.
The unique structure encompassing Matt’s emotional memories of this time in their lives is not confusing, though it demands that continuity be worked out regarding beards and haircuts, which sometimes is not spot-on. Initially, I questioned the structure, then realized that there is an order to emotional memory. The film’s tone and impact would have been lessened if Nicole, Matt and Dane’s relationship, and Nicole’s deterioration had been expressed through the mundanity of chronology.
Our Friend is a film you should see for its depth of feeling and great performances. It opens online streaming January 22, 2020.