‘Til the End

Our Friend

by George Wolf

We don’t tell the truth about dying.

Writer Matthew Teague came to that realization in 2012 when his wife Nicole died of cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind Matt, two daughters, and one very special best friend.

Five years later, Matt detailed their ordeal in an award-winning piece for Esquire magazine. Though it wasn’t Matt’s original intent, as the piece took shape it became clear his focus was Dane Faucheux, the friend who put his own life on hold to be there for Matt, Nicole and their girls.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby deliver Teague’s memoir to the screen with a tender focus on the daily details, and a stellar trio of leads delivering authentic, emotional performances.

Dakota Johnson has never been better as Nicole, bringing a heartbreaking sweetness to the journey into physical and mental decay before her character’s final breaths.

The quiet, committed stoicism that Matt fights to maintain is a natural vehicle for Casey Affleck, and he absorbs the role seamlessly. The Oscar-winning Affleck allows Matt’s hurt to register even in the lightly humorous moments, revealing a man caught between remaining strong and truly processing what the future will bring.

But much like in Teague’s original story, Dane is the soul of this film, thanks to Jason Segel’s warm and vulnerable performance. We see – even before Dane does – that his place in the Teague family has given his life the purpose he’s been craving. Segel never stoops to melodrama, and his scenes with the Teague girls (Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, both terrific) sparkle with the charm of a man who has found peace within this family.

A wonderful cameo by the always-welcome Cherry Jones as a hospice nurse only cements the effectiveness of this cast, and of Cowperthwaite’s dramatic instincts.

The drawback here is the non-linear structure in Ingelsby’s (The Way Back, Out of the Furnace) script. Though you can see how the shifting timelines might fit a magazine article, on screen they keeps us at a distance, and prevent the trio’s backstory from truly taking root. The chapters in these lives are not equally important, each builds on the other to strengthen the human bonds. Our connection suffers with the re-set of each new time stamp.

Is this a tear-jerker? For sure, but Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey) creates a mood that steers clear of sappy. That elusive truth of dying will always be uniquely intimate, and the way Cowperthwaite’s camera gently wanders away from characters and conversations provides a consistent reminder that the nature of grieving is that it’s often for the lives left behind.

Because this isn’t really a story about dying, it’s one about caring – caring about other people enough to care for them when it helps. As one family found out, there’s a true beauty in that, and Our Friend lets us glimpse it.

Moral Inventory

Boy Erased

by George Wolf

I don’t know if Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are up on tennis history, but lately they’ve had a nice little Borg/McEnroe thing going. Close in both age and film credits, the last few years have seen them serve and volley with increasingly impressive performances.

Just weeks after Chalamet’s astounding turn in Beautiful Boy, Hedges joins him as a likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace and understanding.

Hedges channels Conley as Jared Eamons, an Arkansas high school senior struggling with his sexual identity. Already in the Bible Belt, Jared feels even more pressure to conform from his father’s (a terrific Russel Crowe) status as a pastor and soon-to-be ordained minister in the local Baptist church. Once Jared is forced to admit his feelings for men, church elders recommend a conversion therapy program led by Mr. Sykes (Edgerton).

Amid flashbacks to Jared’s path toward confessing his feelings, Hedges makes all the confusion feel heart-breakingly real. Jared, facing a strictly conservative community and the chance his parents may disown him, enters The Refuge Program with a sincere commitment to become the person everyone else wants him to be. There is a quiet war stirring in Jared as he takes his “moral inventory”, and Hedges is able to make him a sympathetic soul screaming for release via a restrained, beautifully insightful turn.

Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Jared’s eyes being opened through gradual episodes that resist any urge to demonize. Small choices, such as the way he frames a prayer circle at the dinner table or one wonderful scene between Jared and his family doctor (the always welcome Cherry Jones) show Edgerton’s respect for the fragility of reminding us that beyond the rhetoric of hot button issues are real lives being lived.

Jared’s father and mother (Nicole Kidman, also award-worthy) are not portrayed as villains, but rather as parents making choices based on the information they had at the time. The ways that both the information and the parents change acknowledges the religion/science debate without soapboxes, keeping the film’s viewpoint wisely intimate.

It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.





Get the Guests

The Party

by Matt Weiner

Sally Potter’s jet-black comedy The Party mostly succeeds as social satire examining the savagery churning just below the surface of the polite and prosperous. Where it definitely succeeds, in ways that must seem truly unfair to every single other actor alive today, is crowning Patricia Clarkson as a national treasure.

Not that the rest of the tight ensemble is full of slouches. Clarkson plays April, one of five guests attending a party for Janet (the almost equally superb Kristin Scott Thomas), who is celebrating a political promotion.

Janet’s guests fall into broadly recognizable personalities who are practically begging to have their worlds turned inside out: from the New Age life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) to the supercilious professor Martha (Cherry Jones, also—and you might be sensing a theme here—outstanding).

Timothy Spall plays Bill, Janet’s husband and a literal odd man out: he is nearly catatonic when the guests arrive. When he finally reveals why, it sets off a series of violent delights, both verbal and physical.

The cast might actually be too good for the material (written by Potter). That’s an envious problem for a movie to have, but it’s still a real one. The repartee is shocking and funny in turn. Just about every single line delivery from Clarkson, Scott Thomas and Spall is perfectly measured—so much so that the barbs feel like they’re cutting a lot deeper than they really are.

And Emily Mortimer provides a welcome degree of grounding as Jinny, Martha’s partner and the only party guest who seems recognizably human rather than an outsized target ripe for mockery.

But for all the wicked pleasures to be had from watching this masterclass in verbal sparring, there’s a nagging superficiality to it all. The rapid-fire pace distracts from the reality that nobody besides maybe Jinny ends up discovering some deeper personal meaning about themselves other than rank hypocrisy. And a gimmicky twist at the end doesn’t help.

And yet. It’s easy to forgive The Party’s shortcomings after you’ve heard Clarkson tell someone “You are surpassing yourself” or “You could consider murder” in tones so deadpan that we really ought to invent a new adjective.

It’s a strange, perfectly flawed bunch Potter has thrown together. And I could have stayed with them for hours more.