Review: Our Friend

The problem with cancer movies isn’t that the disease is often meant to symbolize something else, but rather that in showing the process of dying over a period of time the natural instincts of a filmmaker work to elide anything that doesn’t touch directly on the effects of cancer. Our Friend, a long movie based on a long magazine essay by Matthew Teague, essentially tries to get at that process more honestly, but uses a device that necessarily distracts from what the movie really wants to say, which is that dying from cancer is messy and horrible, and covers it up with the redemption story of a man who never knew what he had in him.

Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) lead a relative privileged life for people who make money as, respectively, a freelance journalist and a part-time actress in a local theater company in suburban Alabama. After Nicole is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her condition worsens, the couple’s old friend, Dane (Jason Segel), volunteers to move in and take care of the house and Nicole during the last year of her life so that both she and Matt can get through the ordeal without destroying Matt and their children. The movie, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, goes to great pains to show how Dane has nowhere to go and no particular goal in life. At the time he moves in, he’s barely holding down a sales job at a sporting goods store. Occasionally, he talks about trying his hand at standup comedy, but flashbacks indicate he’s been at loose ends for as long as he’s known Matt and Nicole, and approaching his forties all his friends are married with kids. At first, moving in and taking care of the family more or less seems like a way for Dane to get free room and board, but, in any case, the family welcomes him, and, in the end, is glad they did.

Because the script tends to jump around a lot in time, the full impact of Nicole’s illness is muted for about two-thirds of the movie, but in its final rush to the end it picks up the details of dying in small, potent ways that are much more affecting than the usual emergency-room-visits-and-puking scenes you normally get in cancer movies. (Our Friend has those, too, but they’re strangely low-key) The point is that cancer destroys not just the person who has it, but often their loved ones as well, and the core of Teague’s story is that his family didn’t implode because of Dane, who, perhaps because his decency was always in plain sight but untapped (he talks a lot about working abroad for an NGO), becomes the hero no one could ever expect him to be, including Matt, who’s always thought of him as a screwup. If the movie fails anyone, it’s Nicole, whose illness is almost taken for granted, and while Johnson makes her into a fully inhabited human being who once strayed and whose loss will be deeply felt by those around her, Cowperthwaite spends much much time on Matt’s and Dane’s relationship, probably because it is Matt who now feels at loose ends, not knowing how to act around his wife or his daughters. In the end, Dane is mainly there for him rather than for Nicole, who, in the final days, at least has a hospice attendant (Cherry Jones). Dane is not portrayed as a saint or even someone who finds his purpose. He simply rises to the occasion, whatever that occasion happens to be at the moment, and the beauty of the movie is the way is stays in its lane and suppresses the usual melodrama in favor of the everyday satisfactions of good companionship and quiet throughtfulness. It’s devastating in its own unusual way.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Our Friend home page in Japanese

photo (c) BBP Friend LLC 2020

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