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.