One of the most daunting types of films is the ones tackling disease and/or impending death. There’s so much you can do without delving into clichés the genre seems inherently familiar with. Fortunately, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Our Friend doesn’t entirely revert to familiarity due to its terrific lead performances. Based on the Esquire essay The Friend, the film chronicles the last two years of Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson)’s life as she battles terminal cancer. Seeing how Nicole’s husband, Matthew (Casey Affleck), can’t cope with her imminent death and has a distant relationship with his children, his best friend, Dane (Jason Segel), decides to move in and help out until Matthew is back on his feet.
Instead of diving into familiar tropes of the “disease-drama” genre, Our Friend sets itself apart with a non-linear storyline, jumping through different time periods of Dane, Matthew, and Nicole’s life. However, most of these sequences don’t amount to anything in particular and never really deepen the film’s characters. A scene where we see Matthew almost having an affair with a journalist while being in Pakistan has nothing to do with the film’s plot and extends the runtime for no reason.
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Since these sequences have nothing to do with the movie, none of them feels important to understand how they react to Nicole’s cancer. They’re only moments of “insight” from Nicole, Matthew, and Dane’s life so the audience can say, “oh, that happened.” Running at 124 minutes, most of these “flashback” sequences take away important moments of drama and character development in the “present-day” while Nicole is dying of cancer. We didn’t need flashbacks in a film like this, save for the film’s opening scene, which tells us how Matthew met Dane.
Of course, one can argue that the use of flashbacks in a film littered with predictability makes the film stand-out above most “disease-drama” films, which is true. However, when the flashbacks only slow down the film’s pace and add nothing to the story and the protagonists’ development, the use of flashbacks only feels like a novelty instead of being an important element of the film’s structure. Without those sequences, the film would last 90 minutes. It would’ve been a more predictable and familiar film, sure, but its narrative would’ve also been tighter and more impactful. Fizzling out the most important dramatic moments of the movie with badly-segued flashbacks makes Our Friend more tedious than it should be.
Our Friend’s familiar storyline, however, is elevated by its great lead performances. Both Jason Segel and Casey Affleck bring incredible humanity to Dane and Matthew, respectively, and have terrific chemistry together. Many of the film’s most emotional sequences involve both characters, as Dane’s silence, while Matthew and Nicole are suffering emotionally and physically, could very well make you tear up.
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It’s the number one reason why the film isn’t as mediocre as its script is. We care for the characters because the acting feels incredibly raw. Gabriela Cowperthwaite infuses so much compassion and vivid beauty through her lens that makes the acting shine brighter than any flaw the audience can find in its screenplay. Joe Anderson’s cinematography allows the audience member to approach themselves closer to the protagonists, making some of the movie’s most emotional moments more poignant.
It’s challenging to infuse originality when the type of film you’re tackling requires you to check a list of familiar tropes to reach out to the biggest audience possible. However, Gabriela Cowperthwaite should be commended to try something different with the genre, even if the result isn’t as memorable as it should be. If the flashback sequences had more impact and were focused on developing the character relationships and their psyche, Our Friend would be a must-see, but it isn’t the case. Still, the movie is worth seeking out if you’re looking for tremendous acting from three A-listers. You might not regret it.