Cancer drama Our Friend falters with odd choice of focus
Movies about people with cancer, save for the notable example of the Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt comedy 50/50, are guaranteed weepies. Within the sub-genre, all sorts of tragic or inspiring stories can be told, but the one thing they’re all sure to elicit – if done right – is tears.
That’s the first thing to keep in mind when watching the based-on-real-events film Our Friend. The surprising thing is that the titular friend is not the person with the dreaded disease, but rather Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson), a theater actor and wife of journalist Matt Teague (Casey Affleck). When Nicole gets diagnosed with ovarian cancer, their longtime friend, Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), comes to their home in Fairhope, Alabama to help out them and their two daughters.
What was supposed to be a short, two-week stay winds being much longer, as Dane forgoes his admittedly lackluster life in New Orleans for the opportunity to do something purposeful. The film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, bounces back and forth in time, focusing not just on the years of Nicole’s cancer, but also the friends’ many interactions in the years before that.
As the title indicates, a good portion of the film is spent on Dane and his life, an interesting choice given that the only reason he’s present is because a woman is dying. The film is based on an article Matt Teague wrote in 2015, so there’s a reason behind the structure of the film, but it’s tough to get emotionally-involved with Nicole’s cancer story when it often plays second-fiddle to Dane’s life.
In fact, we barely get to know Nicole at all outside of the fact that she’s an actor and has cancer. Much more of an effort is put into how caring for her affects Matt and how moving to Alabama upended Dane’s life. There’s no doubt that there is nobility in what both men were doing, but giving Nicole more of the spotlight would have been the just and equitable thing to do.
The three friends clearly had a special kind of friendship, since one friend was willing to give up most of his life to care for the other two. While the filmmakers do a good job of establishing chemistry between the three characters, the jumping back and forth in time dilutes the impact of that bond. Instead of seeing their relationships grow over time, the audience only witnesses small moments that don’t cumulatively add up to a fulfilling whole.
The three actors work well together, with none of them falling into the cancer movie trap of being over the top. Affleck, an Oscar veteran after winning Best Actor in 2017 for Manchester By the Sea, has the biggest profile, but all three are on essentially equal footing throughout the film. Cherry Jones makes the biggest impact of the film in a compelling and strong third-act role.
Our Friend is watchable and earns its tears in the end, but it could have been much more with a few tweaks here and there. Most importantly, give the person with cancer her due – she’s definitely earned it.
Our Friend is now playing in theaters and on premium video on demand. It will screen five times, January 29-31, as part of Magnolia at the Modern at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.