“Our Friend” is a beautiful and heartwarming film about the Teague family’s courageous battle with cancer. Based on the 2015 Esquire article by husband Matt (played by Casey Affleck), a veteran journalist, the film features extraordinary performances by Affleck, Dakota Johnson as wife Nicole who at 34 was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in a career-high performance, Jason Segel, as the couple’s best friend Dane who sacrificed his job and relationship to move in with the family for support and to help take care of the couple’s two young daughters.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”) with a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”), this is not your typical tear-jerker. Yes, there are plenty of watery-eyed moments as the bad days begin to outnumber the good ones, but the story is presented in a nonlinear fashion jumping back and forth between happy times, sad times and the moments in between. Subtitles on the screen indicate where in the timeline (pre-, or post-diagnosis) the scene takes place so it’s easy to follow along even though the events take place over a span of 13 years. “Pulp Fiction” takes place over the course of only four days and it’s harder to follow than “Our Friend,” which once again marks each scene with a date stamp.
What transpires on screen is Matt and Nicole’s life — not their entire life, but just the portion of it that features best friend Dane. He is the glue that holds the disorganized storyline together. The shift in tone between scenes, surprisingly is not jarring, kudos to editor Colin Patton who makes the transitions smooth.
Jason Segel has perfected the loveable guy next door character from NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks” to films that include the comedies “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” to the neurotic but still charming David Foster Wallace in the dramatic biopic, “The End of the Tour.” As best friend Dane, the actor’s comedic side is always just below the surface. This is a very dramatic role for Segel, and given the context of the story, the laughs are few and far between, but the actor is perfect for this role. I can imagine how the real-life Dane brought a sense of relief and hope to Nicole and Matt even in the darkest times and whenever Segel is on screen, he conveys a similar feeling to the viewer, which also makes the shift in tone easier to swallow.
For the longest time, Matt Teague didn’t want to write about his wife’s death. Dying from cancer is not a go-out-with-a-bang dramatic experience, and while Nicole’s heroism while battling the illness would automatically make her the hero of the film, the former war correspondent realized that there was another hero to this story, and it was self-sacrificing Dane.
Dakota Johnson who we saw last year in the Tracee Ellis Ross comedy-drama “The High Note” and in the previous year’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon” delivers an unforgettable performance in her most challenging role yet. Nicole is dying yet Johnson brings her to life, giving us a complete picture of the once-promising stage actress with aspirations of becoming a Broadway star, to the wonderful mother who raised two lovely girls, to the patient wife who took on the extra load as Matt traveled the world chasing one story after another. Nicole, like every character in this moving story, has flaws and so Ingelsby’s screenplay — which Matt Teague oversaw — doesn’t make her out to be a martyr.
Finally, there’s Casey Affleck’s superb performance as Matt who remains strong for Nicole while dealing with feelings of anger, sadness and a heavy dose of reality. The Oscar-winning actor whose devastating performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” brought me to tears, does it again in a very emotional moment in the film that comes when you least expect it.
The film also features a heartwarming performance by Cherry Jones as the hospice nurse who arrives in time to help Nicole move on from this world to the next. It’s such a difficult and emotional moment but in the hands of the accomplished actress, Jones pays honor to all those hospice volunteers with an honest portrayal of the care and peace they bring to many families during such a difficult time.
The real Nicole Teague loved Led Zeppelin and two of the band’s songs, “Ramble On” and “Going to California” make it into the soundtrack, not an easy feat as the band is very discriminating when it comes to giving a project the rights to their music, but lead singer Robert Plant was moved after screening the film.
“Our Friend” is a story about three heroes. Nicole who fought bravely as long as she could shielding her young daughters from the inevitable; Matt who didn’t have time to get angry at life for the cards it dealt Nicole; and Dane who sacrificed a good portion of his life for his two best friends. It’s inspiring, touching and a phenomenal film. Thank you, Matt, for sharing your story.
Opens Jan. 22 in theaters including Cinemark 12 Victoria, and On-Demand.