Characters struggling with cancer have provided the dramatic backdrop for plenty of films over the years. From the decline of a 26-year-old professional football player in Brian’s Song (1971) to a young mother with breast cancer in Terms of Endearment(1983) to an adolescent girl with leukemia in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), films frequently use characters with failing health to examine love in a time of crisis.
Even comedies like Patch Adams (1998) and The Bucket List (2007) have characters laughing in the face of approaching death.
Our Friend, a new film from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, joins a long tradition of films set in the midst of impending medical doom. In the opening scene of the film, Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) are discussing how they are going to “break the news” to their two daughters. Has someone lost a job? Are they moving? Has a relative died?
The camera initially holds on Affleck squirming in his chair, uncertain how to proceed. As the shot slowly widens, we see Johnson with a bald head under a stylish turban, and we know exactly what news they are breaking to their girls.
The film then launches into a series of connected vignettes that jump back and forth through time. The beginning of each section provides the audience with a date and then a reference to Before Diagnosis or After Diagnosis. Details are slowly doled out until the audience has a full understanding of Matt and Nicole’s life before and during her illness.
The narrative glue to the film is Dane (Jason Segal), a college friend of both Matt and Nicole. Dane can’t seem to get his personal life together. He has commitment issues when it comes to the women he dates. But, when his friends need him, Dane puts his life on hold, moves in with Matt and Nicole, and helps them weather the crisis. Dane’s scenes entertaining his friends’ daughters are heart-warming and funny without being manipulative.
The strength of Our Friend is its casting. Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segal are pitch perfect in their respective roles. Movies about disease tend to be melodramatic, weepy tearjerkers that were once considered films for women, counter-programming to the action films marketed to men. (I won’t discuss how chauvinistic that is.)
Our Friend avoids wallowing in the misery of its setting. The characters laugh as much as they cry, and the portrayal of life-long friendship among the three leads feels lived-in and convincing.
At times film critics can make the mistake of thinking that every film has to break new ground. If you’ve seen it before, maybe even something better in years past, then it’s your duty to reject the current version regardless of how well made it is. I avoid that line of thinking.
Given the 100 plus years of film history, you can always come up with an example of a “better” film. That doesn’t nullify the film at hand.
Our Friend is very much a genuine slice of life. It’s not just One Thing. Human beings tend to find humor in sadness, discover comfort in chaos, and this film understands that. It rings true at every turn and doesn’t wallow in its sadness. Nicole’s cancer is just one facet of the characters’ lives until it reaches the moment where it becomes all-consuming.
Our Friend may not be based on a new concept, and it may not have anything ground-breaking to say about its subject matter, but it is so well made and so well performed that it’s worth experiencing. In fact, my primary concern is that audiences may avoid the film because of the sadness of its premise.
The past year was one of collective hardship, and movie lovers may not want to kick off their New Year with the story of a young mother dying of cancer.
I’m not always a “glass half full” kind of person, but I found Our Friend to be a beautiful portrait of the power of friendship in the face of adversity.
Our Friend hits theaters and Video on Demand on Friday, January 22nd.