Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Our Friend (previously known as The Friend) has the kind of log line that makes you think you know exactly what kind of film you’re getting. When Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, friend of the family Dane (Jason Segel) decides to put his life on pause to help his pal Matthew (Casey Affleck) navigate a domestic life with the two young daughters he’s long neglected. Add the fact that this is based on Teague’s own article chronicling the years leading up to and following Nicole’s diagnosis, and you have the kind of true-to-life story that has become, pun intended, the hallmark of a certain brand of made-for-TV-movies.
As if to offset these expectations, Brad Ingelsby’s script opts for a fragmented approach. It shuttles audiences back and forth in time to present Nicole, Matt and Dane’s intersecting lives out of order. Dane does chores around the house while Nicole rests. Dane meets and flirts with Nicole without knowing she’s married. Matt travels for work yet again as Nicole tries to raise her young girls. Nicole receives her diagnosis, and so on and so forth. The impetus to fracture the narrative so extensively is driven, it seems, to avoid telling the same old story about how families cope with terminal illnesses. As its title suggests, this is not Nicole’s story. (Matt all but spells it out in the final moments of the film.) It explains why Johnson ends up serving as a mere plot device throughout Our Friend. She is rarely afforded the quiet introspection and complexity that Affleck and Segel’s respective characters get to mine.
One need only look at the opening moments of the film. Segel, channeling the buoyant earnestness that anchored the 2011 Muppets reboot and, more recently, the television show Dispatches from Elsewhere, is seen entertaining the Teague girls. His warmth is undeniable, an early sign that his compassion and child-like wonder will be central to the piece at hand. Our Friend is yet another example of Jason Segel’s uncanny ability to harness heartfelt earnestness.
Soon, though, Cowperthwaite brings audiences to the bedroom where Nicole and Matt are discussing how to tell their girls that Nicole will die soon. (They’re not supposed to say “Mommy is going to sleep” or “going on a trip”.) The camera stays on Affleck, with Johnson just slightly off frame. It’s a key visual cue that the two men in Nicole’s life will be the focus of the film, not her. This is a project that wants to squarely focus on those who are left behind, based as it is on Teague’s own account. He can’t help but have become the central protagonist, along with Dane, of the story of how they dealt with Nicole’s illness. There’s a brave attempt here to really focus on the mundane stresses that come with battling cancer — as a mother, as a wife, as a friend. But in depriving Nicole from her own interiority, the film fails her, making her late outbursts (not to mention certain disclosures about the Teague’s marital problems) feel needlessly obtuse.
Ultimately, though, the muddled timeline and the familiar beats that dominate the final third of the film end up undermining whatever attempts Teague, Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite made to have Our Friend feel like a novel twist on a well-worn story. As much as Our Friend wants to focus on Dane and his selfless commitment to the Teagues — a choice that’s as much about finding a purpose outside of himself as well as a chance to run away from his own life — Ingelsby’s script seems to always shy away from the prickliness of such a question. It keeps audiences at arm’s length from Dane’s state of mind. During one heated conversation with his then-girlfriend, who wants him to understand that having been left alone in another town for months feels like abdication of their relationship, the film moves away from them, muting their chat in the process. As one observes them from behind a window, Our Friend leaves it to viewers to fill in the blanks concerning their breakup. It’s but one example of the way Our Friend wants to raise complicated questions around why we make the choices we make, but ultimately shies away from letting us confront them head-on.
Our Friend opens in theatres and on demand on January 22, 2021.