‘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.

Always Faithful

Megan Leavey

by George Wolf

Anchored by the powerful bond between a K-9 Marine and his handler, Megan Leavey is a thoroughly respectful and frequently touching testament to heroes of differing species.

Kate Mara is fantastic as Corporal Leavey, who was twice deployed to Iraq with her bomb-sniffing dog Rex, saving multiple lives until they were both wounded by an improvised explosive. After her return to civilian life, Leavey mounted an impressive campaign to adopt Rex, and was ultimately successful with an assist from her Senator, New York’s Chuck Schumer.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who nearly brought Sea World to its knees with the documentary Blackfish, builds Megan Leavey with impressive restraint in each of its themes. Never a jingoistic war film, shameless recruiting tool or schmaltzy ode to a dog’s purpose (pun intended), the film, like its subjects, does a job and does it well.

At times tense, loving, and even goosebump-worthy, Megan Leavey is a fine reminder that family comes in all breeds.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





A Fine Reason to Interrupt Shark Week

 

by George Wolf

 

If a trip to Sea World is still on your late summer agenda, Blackfish will most likely make you reconsider.

That’s not meant to be flippant. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has constructed a searing indictment against keeping killer whales captive for human amusement. She has an agenda, and she’s damn effective at getting it across.

She bases the film around Tilikum, a trained whale currently at Sea World in Orlando that has been responsible for three fatalities. Cowperthwaite is able to trace “Tilly”’s history back to the day he was first taken from his mother in the wild, a memory that still evokes tears from at least one man who was involved in the capture.

Interviews with former trainers, whale researchers and animal rights activists, along with a hefty amount of video from marine amusement parks, paint a picture with precious little gray area. Though no one from Sea World agreed to participate, it becomes increasingly hard to imagine any solid rebuttal.

Blackfish makes it clear that holding killer whales in captivity should be doubly offensive. A cruel practice against a highly intelligent and emotional species, it also poses a very real threat to humans, a threat that has been downplayed for years.

That threat made headlines in 2010 after the gruesome death of a star trainer. A resulting court case brought new restrictions for whale interaction (which Sea World is currently appealing).

One viewing of Blackfish, and it’s case closed.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars