Our Friend Movie Review: A bittersweet tale of love and friendship and everything in between
The film makes a strong case for friendship as the ultimate bond, presenting it as perhaps the closest form there is to unconditional love
Our Friend is one of those character-driven drama films that has many things going for it. Based on an Esquire article by Matthew Teague, it chronicles the lives of three individuals over the course of a decade - through the bonds of friendship, love, marriage, parenthood, and terminal illness. What sets the narrative apart is its emotional depth and nuance.
The central characters – Nicole, Matthew, and Dane – are shown in varying shades to provide a window into their souls. Via timelines that commence in 2013, with constant flashbacks and flashforwards through the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s, Our Friend captures the whole gamut of complex emotions involving human relationships. Nicole, a stage actress, is married to Matthew, a journalist. The former introduces her friend Dane to her husband. And the three become equally close as time wears on. It is impressive how Gabriela Cowperthwaite & Co. have managed to present a distinct character study of three people (bound so closely to one another) in only a two-hour story. Nicole, once content with work and life, must confront the news of her cancer diagnosis. Matthew, stuck in a dead-end job writing features for years, finally gets his big break with the New York Times. Despite a penchant for humour and dreams of a career in stand-up comedy, Dane is down on his luck in every respect. The narrative arc ranges from unbridled joy to debilitating pain, but one thing that remains a given through the highs and lows is empathy for its characters. The deep understanding accorded to each of them (even some of the supporting cast) and their respective circumstances in life, is telling.
The pressures of romantic relationships are among the film’s more pressing themes. The trials of Nicole’s and Matthew’s long-distance marriage are witnessed briefly on a cross-continental video call. Matthew takes up another war assignment (he is in Lahore at the time) for The Atlantic without so much as consulting his wife. Rightfully upset at his apparent disregard for her opinion, she states she did not sign up to be a single parent to their two daughters. A tired Matthew responds by saying, “But we need the money, don’t we?” Dane’s love life (after a few not-so-successful relationships) seems to be heading somewhere when his most recent girlfriend proposes they live together. He has moved temporarily in with Nicole and Matthew to help with their children as the latter deals with a bleak cancer diagnosis. When asked if he plans on returning (“Why can’t others be there for them too? Why does it only have to be you?”), he chooses to end things between them. These scenes capture the characters’ motivations and lays bare their priorities. While Nicole and Matthew decide to stick by their marriage for better or for worse, Dane finds the greater purpose of his life (which is to be by his best friends’ side when they are at their lowest).
Director – Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast – Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck, Isabella Rice, Violet McGraw
Dane moving in, helping with his friends’ children, and running the house, all while Matthew is rushing Nicole to hospital at every given opportunity, is presented in the most normal, understated way. It is something that just happens organically, as if he were part of the setup all along. And yet, despite his proximity to the situation, he does not interfere or overstep in any of the major decision-making. He lets his friends be who they are and decide what’s best amongst themselves. He separates the two when they need a break from one another. He counsels the children using humour. And while he is never really thanked verbally, the couple’s gratitude for his seemingly selfless gesture is boundless. This is evident when Matthew has had enough with a common friend’s perpetual criticism of Dane and his life choices. He says, “I’m giving you a pass because you’re our friend’s husband. Remind me to drive over to your house and punch you in the face when you guys break up.” That scene of unfailing loyalty says it all, really.
Our Friend provides such an immersive acting experience. Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck are quite excellent in their roles of Nicole and Matthew. Maybe Jason Segel could have been a bit better, but in spite of his shortcomings, he gives us enough in Dane to empathise with and admire. Unfulfilling work opportunities, a stagnating stand-up comedy career, no long-lasting romantic relationships, and perpetual judgement from the outside, notwithstanding, he stays true to his large-hearted, giving nature, refusing to buckle. As Matthew puts it in the end, “Getting your shit together is overrated.” The film makes a strong case for friendship, presenting it as perhaps the closest form there is to unconditional love between human beings.