2020 was a tough year and 2021 isn’t starting out much better, so it’s poor timing for a studio to release a tearjerker like “Our Friend.” Movies about terminal illness are never fun to watch, but this one is such a downer that it may serve as an unwanted depressant for even the most upbeat viewers.
Based on an award-winning Esquire magazine article, the film tells the true story of journalist Matt Teague (Casey Affleck) and his actress wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson), who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Seeing his best friend coping with a dying wife and struggling to be a good father to his two young daughters (Violet McGraw, Isabella Kai), Dane (Jason Segel) puts his own life on hold and moves in with Matt and Nicole to support them through the roughest of times. It’s a true gesture of steadfast friendship, with Dane standing by the family until the end.
If this sounds like a bittersweet heartwarming story of devotion, it (mostly) is. The story is told in non-linear segments that travel through time and give us a glimpse of how things developed and how they eventually ended. The most horrific parts of Teague’s article are omitted from the film, with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite choosing instead to go the inspirational route. The sugar-coating feels phony and insincere, and even with knockout performances from the three leads, it’s still a huge downer.
It’s a given that Affleck is always powerful in roles like this, but Segel is the real surprise. He gives Dane a sadness and empathy that feels real and is unexpected for an actor who has never shown such depth. A brief supporting turn from Cherry Jones as a home hospice nurse is the most memorable performance, showing a beautiful (and realistic) sympathy towards her client.
I suppose “Our Friend” would be a solid drama for those looking to empty an entire box of Kleenex, but it’s a tough sell in times like these. It’s a story of humanity and friendship that isn’t as uplifting as it sounds, but there’s still a glimmer of joy to be found.