'Our Friend': Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film is replete with beautiful moments of love and kindness

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

There is something about films that deal with characters battling cancer that attract storytellers the world over. Invariably such stories end with someone dying. And so right from the onset we know what we are up for. And yet as viewers we want to watch it unfold right in front of us. The newly released American film “Our Friend”, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is another such tale revolving around cancer. But what makes it different from most films about characters battling cancer is the fact that it’s based on a true story. No, it’s not based on some book written by a cancer survivor. But, it is actually based on a 2015 article written by Matthew Teague titled “The Friend: Love is Not a Big Enough Word” about his wife’s battle with cancer that was published in Esquire Magazine. Brad Ingelsby adapted it into a screenplay for “Our Friend”. The film stars Casey Affleck as Matthew Teague, Dakota Johnson as Matthew’s wife Nicole, and Jason Segel as the couple’s best friend Dane Faucheux.

Teague’s aforementioned article is perhaps the most poignant thing that you will ever read. “Most of September 17, 2012, has evaporated from my mind. I still have a few memories. I have the way the surgeon's voice shook. I remember my wife calling my name while she was still under sedation. And I have an image of the hospital floor, up close,” reads the article’s opening lines. Teague further writes, “Nicole was thirty-four, and the doctor had been direct: ‘It's everywhere,’ he said. ‘Like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen.’ I staggered down a hallway and then collapsed. I remember the tile, close to my face, and then watching it retreat as my best friend picked me up from the floor. His name is Dane Faucheux, and I remember noting, even in the midst of a mental fugue: Dane's a lot stronger than I realized.” As you would have guessed by now, the article is as much about Dane as it is about Matthew and Nicole. And the same is true of Cowperthwaite’s film that takes its time to establish the dynamics between these three individuals. Without understanding the bond that they share, watching the film would really be a futile exercise.

When Nicole first introduces Matthew to Dane, the two take time to warm up to each other. The fact that Dane had asked Nicole out on a date (completely unaware that she is already married) didn’t go too well with Matthew. But when Nicole tells Matthew that Dane had no idea about their marriage he agrees to meet him. Also, it doesn’t help that the two have very different outlooks towards life. Matthew is always so practical and has a clear view of his goals. Dane, on the other hand, is always unsure about what he really wants to do in his life. “I want to do standup comedy,” he tells Matthew. But when Matthew inquires further he learns that Dane has no real plans in place. Matthew, on the other hand, is a features writer at the time but hopes to write the kind of journalistic pieces that have the power to “change the world”.

When Matthew takes up international assignments in places such as Lahore and Libya, it is usually Dane who is around to give some friendly company to Nicole and her two daughters. After Matthew returns, Dane tries to give him some friendly advice about family matters but Matthew completely loses his cool and reminds him about his relationship failures. There is always an undercurrent of tension between the two men but it all changes after Nicole is diagnosed with cancer. Finally, the two men begin to respect each other. Matthew writes in his article, “It was a routine death in every sense. It was ordinary. Common. The only remarkable element was Dane. I had married into this situation, but how had he gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word. He stood and faced the reality of death for my sake. He is my friend." A lifelong friendship was thus forged.

Casey Affleck is a truly wonderful actor but “Our Friend” somewhere fails to get the best out of him. But, frankly, he is so good that there is no such thing as a bad Casey Affleck performance. But it’s also not a great one. Surprisingly, it’s Jason Segel who steals the show with a mesmerizing performance. As for Dakota Johnson, this is really the most seasoned performance of her acting career so far. She has certainly come a long way from her “Fifty Shades of Grey” days. One hopes that after this she will be encouraged to take up more challenging roles. “Our Friend” is replete with beautiful moments of love and kindness. Also, there are moments of great apathy and indifference. It’s this dichotomy that makes it so humanistic. We come across deeply flawed human beings struggling to pull themselves up while confronting their lies and deception, ordinary people capable of doing extraordinary deeds at their most vulnerable.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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