A Likeable Cast Makes This Worth A Watch
OUR FRIEND (2021)
Based on journalist Matthew Teague’s Esquire essay “The Friend”, Our Friend is a suitably moving, though standard drama detailing the hardships of cancer and the unconditionality of friendship in its purest form. Whilst Teague’s article dove deep, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s filmic version keeps things mostly surface level. It isn’t without its share of emotionally wrenching sequences though, and both Matthew and his cancer-struck wife Nicole aren’t bathed in a perfect glow, but the film never dares to be too unlikeable in fear of off-putting any audience member who want their tragic stories a little more vanilla than what reality actually allows.
Cowperthwaite and writer Brad Ingelsby have plenty to work with, going off Teague’s original essay. And though everything that transpires on screen is fine, there’s nothing beyond what we see that warrants any further praise. The decision to jump back and forth over the course of a decade as it details the friendship between Matthew (Casey Affleck), Nicole (Dakota Johnson), and Dane (Jason Segel) - who would ultimately become the saviour they didn’t know they needed - means momentum is often broken, and it doesn’t help that Matthew isn’t always the most likeable character. It’s a testament in some ways that the film which the real-life Matthew essentially created allows him to be seen in such a manner, but there’s only so many relationship tragedies we can handle, especially when Nicole is already suffering through her cancer. Where Cowperthwaite excels is in her decision to expand Dane’s presence within the family, showcasing him as a devoted personality who defies expectation to lift both Matthew and Nicole (and their children) up where he can in the face of devastation.
We’ve seen these types of sweet-natured yet emotionally devastating stories before, and if you’re a cynic or have been personally affected by such a situation then Our Friend may not be the easiest watch. Matthew and Nicole are painted as a very loving yet flawed couple whose frustrations and insecurities, mostly pertaining to each other’s professions and the company they keep (he’s a journalist constantly on assignment, she’s an actress with evident admirers), are only intensified when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Her decaying state means she’s prone to mood swings (understandably), which only makes matters worse, leaving their unlikely “slacker” friend, Dane, to pick up the pieces. Dane is the film’s one truly likeable character - though thankfully not painted as overtly saintly - and it’s smart to make him the focus as he can easily see both sides of Matthew and Nicole’s pain.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Jason Segel has always managed to project charm into his film roles, even if the characters on paper don’t seem like the most affable archetypes. Our Friend is no exception. Dane seems to have little direction regarding a career, and his pining for Nicole - or any other woman really - could be seen as desperate, but such is the charisma of Segel, his character is inherently agreeable from the start, only improving over the course of the film as his character ingrains himself into Matt and Nicole’s lives as her cancerous state grows. Casey Affleck isn't saddled with the easiest role, and though Matt is irritable at times, it’s all coming from a place of truth, and whatever your personal opinions of the actor are, they shouldn’t take away from his ability as a performer. Dakota Johnson potentially has the hardest role of the lead trio. Nicole, like Matt, isn’t always the saintliest person, and her cancer gives way to some truly heinous dialogue that she sprouts without really knowing what she’s saying, resulting in a character we sympathise with in spite of her actions. The three actors share a believable, natural chemistry too which assists in us completely buying their relationship as a whole.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The film never goes the “sick makeup” route regarding Nicole (thankfully), merely altering their demeanour to distinguish a different time period. There’s a very natural look to the film, both to the actors and their surroundings.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Much like the above credentials, there’s nothing particularly standout about what we hear or see beyond the cast, but it’s all very organic nonetheless. The soundtrack is as typical as you’d expect with acoustic, pop/folk tunes and a stirring-enough score that plays with our emotions without being too obvious about it.
Affleck, Segel and Johnson are ultimately why Our Friend succeeds as much as it does. It’s all very easily handled, making sure it never offends along the way, even if the situation Nicole was in would’ve resulted in a much more tragic, unpleasant setting. It’s not the most necessary viewing, but a likeable cast means this familiar-enough story is worth a watch if you find yourself at a loose end one evening and want something that doesn’t challenge you but doesn’t insult your intelligence either.
OUR FRIEND will premiere January 22, 2021 in select theaters and VOD