Our Friend upends some familiar conventions of the terminal illness narrative, but also boasts plenty of missed opportunities.
One of the things that can only be learned firsthand when it comes to the death of loved ones is just how much waiting is involved. Waiting in hospital corridors, waiting for them to wake, and eventually, as Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Our Friend aims to depict, waiting for them to die. Adapted from Matthew Teague’s 2015 article “The Friend,” the film tells the true story of Matthew and Nicole Teague (Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson) and their close friend Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), detailing the events both before and after Nicole is diagnosed with cancer, which soon becomes terminal. As Matthew struggles to cope with the double burden of caring for Nicole and becoming sole caregiver to their daughters, Dane moves in to help out, leaving behind his career, home, and partner; the plan, at first, is to stay a few weeks, but he ends up remaining until after Nicole’s death. Together, the two friends experience what it is to watch a loved one dying — here, that means everything from the trauma of psychosis to the painful monotony of simply waiting bedside as heartbeats become fewer and further between — and to the degree that Our Friend succeeds, it’s found in this study.
Despite the innate gravity of the subject matter, stories about terminal illness are commonplace in cinema, and, in the case of money-makers like Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars, can be reliable audience magnets. A number of unfavorable tropes have arisen from this sub-genre, many of which have already become well-worn, and while Brad Ingelsby’s script does indulge some such banality, it’s only insofar as what is true to Nicole’s life —the film thankfully avoids ever slipping into the sort of insipidly inspirational mode that has come to dominate adaptations of true-life tragedy. Nicole’s vast, post-diagnosis bucket list, her symbolic choice to take control of her hair as reclamation of her body, and her illness working to ultimately bring her family together are all beats that could have easily felt insincere or cliché, but Our Friend makes a point of exploring the opposite, less heartwarming side of these things: Matt and Dane struggle to meet all of Nicole’s bucket list goals, while her relationships all begin to strain under the weight of her failing mental health. Our Friend defies conventional narratives of terminal illness by being unafraid to illuminate the situation’s nastiness, and Dakota Johnson’s performance, as a flawed woman always struggling against her circumstance (both pre- and post-diagnosis), is in keeping with this tone. All that said, the film frequently feels unbalanced. The crux of the movie is the Teagues’ firm bond with Dane, which becomes such a guiding point of emphasis that all else seems diminished. This could be construed as Segel simply stealing the show by making such a saintly character feel somehow plausible (no mean feat), but the spotlight becomes narrow, and all other characters, including Matt and Nicole’s daughters, fade into the background. Even the film’s strong supporting cast — including newcomer Denée Benton, TV stalwart Reed Diamond, and the always powerful screen presence of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie — are unable to help, as their characters are overshadowed and underdeveloped to the point of becoming mere afterthoughts. As such, when Nicole loses friends, it isn’t a loss that the audience is much able to share in.
Similarly, Our Friend erases controversial elements of Matt and Dane’s story that could have marked the film as unique within its genre. Oftentimes in mainstream narratives of illness, considerable effort is made to sanitize the story; characters, particularly the sufferers themselves, are sketched as uniformly good people (or at least individuals who try to be), and there are no moral missteps to be found. While Our Friend does a passable job in making its characters flawed, with the depiction of Nicole’s descending psychosis and the behavioral fallout marking one of the film’s strongest points, it remains limited. There is no mention here of how the couple was forced to hide money from the IRS in order to pay for Nicole’s medical bills or how Matt smuggled drugs, and only passing reference is made to Nicole’s access to technology making their struggle to care for her even harder. So while the film is unflinching in what it chooses to show, what exactly that amounts to isn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as it could or should be, leaving proceedings robbed of potential topicality or increased thematic heft. It seems evident, then, that what Our Friend is mostly up to is a portrayal of friendship’s power in the face of adversity, and on that front, it largely succeeds. Boasting solid, welcomingly subtle performances from the trio of Affleck, Johnson, and Segel, the film merits credit for offering one of the more honest recent depictions of the mundanity of dying and watching someone die. But beyond that, there’s something essential missing in Our Friend, populated as it is by a paper-thin cast of supporting characters and unwilling to veer into uglier or thornier territory. It makes a fine enough contribution to the pantheon of films about terminal illness and upturns a few conventions, but it’s ultimately only enough to leave audiences wishing that there were more.