“Our Friend” is a movie that surprises. Within the trappings of its terminal illness storyline, it earns its emotions by focusing on a friendship without boundaries. Subtle and straightforward, “Our Friend’s” a refreshing reminder of what holds true value in life.
In its opening scene, you feel a sense of dread that you’re about to watch a maudlin melodrama of a woman succumbing to cancer. Matt Teague (Casey Affleck) and his wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) are having the ‘talk’: it’s time to tell their young daughters Molly and Evie (Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw) that Mommy’s dying. The girls are playing on the front porch with Dane (Jason Segel), the Teagues’ friend for over a decade. Matt calls the girls up to see Nicole; Dane waits patiently downstairs. We wait with Dane too and hearing Molly’s loud sobs, watch Dane bow his head as the film fades to black.
Who is Dane and why is he there at the Teague family’s most troubled time? The film is comprised of flashbacks and we get to know the dynamics. Thirteen years earlier, Dane worked with Nicole at a small theatre company. While Dane was a shy tech, Nicole was a budding actress who befriended him. Dane asked Nicole out before learning she was married to Matt, a features writer for the local paper. Matt, learning of Dane’s indiscretion, doesn’t like him but Nicole smoothes things over at a play’s after party as does Dane, who apologizes to Matt for being unaware of their marriage.
While Matt’s career progresses and he and Nicole move from New Orleans, Dane stays behind. Working a dead end job and beginning a romantic relationship with Kat (Marielle Scott), Dane learns of Nicole’s illness. With Matt’s job forcing him to be away, Dane takes it upon himself to go to the Teague home and help. It’s a selfless act, but does Dane have ulterior motives?
Dane’s involvement with the Teagues is just one example of the surprises that makes “Our Friend” different. In a cynical world, sympathy is scrutinized. Does Dane’s affection for Nicole dictate he wants to replace Matt, or is Dane there because Nicole’s in need and Dane has no weighty obligations in his life? In truth, it’s the latter. With Dane spending more time away helping the Teagues, even Kat questions Dane’s commitment. For a man not able to move ahead in his life, Dane’s condemned by his unselfish act of kindness.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose award-winning documentary “Blackfish” showed the same kind of unfettered empathy, “Our Friend” is the kind of character piece where the connections feel real. Based on real events from Matt Teague’s article “The Friend,” the film’s narrative may seem an unnecessary jumble of flashbacks, but it works in not only gaining background into Dane and the Teagues, but also helps avoid the prolonged downward slide as Nicole’s conditions worsen.
As the film’s leads, Affleck, Johnson and Segel do solid work and give honest interpretations of the people they play. Their acting doesn’t distract from what “Our Friend” is focused on: a glimpse at unabashed goodness. Distributed by Universal and executive produced by Ridley Scott, “Our Friend” is a 2019 film that feels like an independent movie. While it won’t bowl most people over, I was surprised how engaged I became in its story. Having gone through 2020, can a movie with a message of “tough times reveal true friends” be that bad? I don’t think so.