Our Friend (2021) Review
THE TIES THAT BIND US TOGETHER
Has Hollywood’s creative engine run out of steam? It goes without saying that Tinseltown might have done that, for many studios have found an interest in adapting popular / bestselling literary novels to the big screen as well as narratives that are “based on a true story / event”. Of late, however, there has been interesting aspect of taking a more approach to journalism with newspaper and / or magazine articles and adapting them for a feature film presentation. These “article-to-film” adaptations, most of which are based on true life accounts of individuals or events, have become points of interest, especially from those wrote it and the subject matter of the article themselves by either examining or exposing such detailed accounts of interest. There have been a few movies that have benefited from these adaptations, including 2012’s Argo (based on the 2007 WIRED article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” by Joshuah Bearman, 2015’s Spotlight (based on a series of reports with, starting with 2002 article “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years” by the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, 2019’s Dark Waters (based on the 2016 New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich), 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (based on the 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say….Hero?” by Tom Junod, just to name a few. Now, Elevation Pictures (along with Gravitas Ventures and Black Bear Pictures) and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite present the latest “article-to-film” project with the release of Our Friend, which is based on the 2015 Esquire Magazine article “The Friend” by Matthew Teague. Does this film find a drama poise in this “based on a true story” tale or is it too much cinematic interjection and a far cry from the journalism article of which it is based on?
In 2013, Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) finds himself struggling in life, faced with the looming death of his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), who’s losing her better with cancer. Trying to put the whole ordeal into a certain type of perspective, he begins to write about this poignant event in his life, returning to moments from over the past several years that meant something to him. Once a low-level journalist with a New Orleans newspaper, Matt comes into contact with a big opportunity when he’s summoned to Georgie to work for a bigger publication. Through the acquaintance of Nicole, Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel) is a friend of the couple, who doesn’t share the same ambition, hopping from one job to the next, while his love life is staggered by a fear of commitment. Dane remains close to Matt and Nicole, with Nicole trying to keep the wayward man’s confidence alive, while the Teagues’ raise their daughters, Evie (Violet McGraw) and Molly (Isabella Kai Rice). As the year pass, the bonds of friendship and of each other are tested by Nicole’s illness, with Dane soon moving in with the Teague family to help out, becoming a source of support the struggling family as Nicole’s cancer worsens.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
There is no doubt that Hollywood has, for the better part of the past two decades, has, for lack of a better term, running out of ideas. As I stated above, the creative thinking machines for cinematic tales has started to become a bit stall, with a great majority of feature film endeavors looking towards literary novels and “based on a true story” aspect for storytelling. Of course, it’s no surprise of this, especially since the ideas of literary bestsellers and such that’s based in real-life have often being more either “gritter” and / or “juicer”. This is why I think Hollywood has decided more on this avenue; choosing stories that have been proven to work and just tweaked slightly for dramatic purposes. Of late, I’ve noticed that more and more films have been adapted from magazine articles that are based on a true story; displaying and / or shedding light on very human stories that seem to show small windows into the personal lives of individuals in a rather quick and precise way (nothing elongated as a novel or biography).
Naturally, this brings me to talking about the film Our Friend, the latest film to be adapted from a magazine article, which was released under the title “The Friend” by Matthew Teague in Esquire magazine back in 2015. Sadly, I didn’t read the original article when it first came out, but I did read it after I saw the movie (just before writing this review. I do highly recommend everyone read it…even if you don’t watch this movie. Anyway, this film sort of went “under the radar” and kind of took me by surprise. This was especially noticeable last year with the COVID-19 pandemic going on and how movies were being shuffled around and delayed an entire year. With most of the big releases being moved and / or streaming on other platforms, there wasn’t much left “new” to watch in January 2021. So, I actually came across this movie one day while skimming around and noticed that it was playing at my local movie theater (the one that it is still open). I did like the cast and decided to check the movie’s trailer, which promised to be more of emotional drama endeavor. After watching it, I decided to purchase a ticket and to see if this movie was worth the watch, especially since I had nothing to do that afternoon. And what did I think of it? Well, I actually liked it. Despite a few points of criticisms, Our Friend is a terrific gut-wrenching film of illness, friendship, and finding hope in such dark / tragic times. It’s very much a character-based feature that’s rooted in humanity and it’s something that touches upon such palpable and poignant means in everyone’s life (in good times and bad).
Our Friend is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose previous directorial works include such documentary films like City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story and Blackfish as well as feature film Megan Leavey. Given her past body of works of real-life subjects, Cowperthwaite seems like a suitable choice for helming such a project; approaching Our Friend with a sense of realism and emotional heartfelt drama to frame the feature. Naturally, this is where the film succeeds as Cowperthwaite shapes the film with a sense of sincerity and humanity to the feature; working through the interlocking lives of three individuals as they go through such difficult times. Naturally, given the nature of the movie’s narrative and the subject matter, Cowperthwaite makes Our Friend steeped in emotional drama and, while something can’t be prevented in being a tad manipulative in tear-jerking, it’s definitely better than most and keeps its focus on the moments / characters that matters. Interestingly, Cowperthwaite takes a little bit of a different approach in the movie; shifting the narrative between present and past in a non-linear way that can be a slight problematic, but achieves a better balance of lighthearted moments and of melancholy ones. Cowperthwaite also doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of dealing with fatal illness; displaying raw emotions of anger and sadness on full display, which definitely lends credence of realism to the feature by never sugar-coating or glossing over such particular moments. Additionally, Cowperthwaite never deviates away from the main narrative piece; always focusing the camera lens of the main trio characters through the various time period of their lives and how they face challenges…. for better or worse. It in these moments where Cowperthwaite shines; capturing some compelling character moments that are truly great, which is thanks to her direction as well as acting talents (more on that below). All in all, Cowperthwaite does a great job in tackling this project and makes Our Friend her most ambitious and best film to date.
Of course, this brings me to talking about the film’s story, which is perhaps the best aspect of Our Friend has to offer (looking beyond the acting talents involved). The film tackles the big issue of someone having cancer and not only how that person deals with it, but also how a person spouse deals with it as well as their close friend, who acts as a lifeline for both in such dark times. This is the core narrative structure of Our Friend (as well as in the original Esquire Magazine article) and the movie showcases these moments in a very intimate way that’s both beautiful and sad at the same time. It’s no shock that movie is going have a few of you shed a tear or two as I certainly did by the time the film reached its conclusion. It’s definitely heartbreaking and emotional powerful movie; one that can be easily reflected upon reality. As I might have mentioned in a few other reviews, such fatal illness like cancer can affect many, with most of us having it or knowning somebody who has / had it during their life. It’s definitely a struggle to be sure as Our Friend showcases these moments in way that speaks to reality. For me, this movie touched me personally, especially since I went through something like this recently. I don’t like talking about this much, but my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of November 2020. Luckily, she caught in the early stages of stage 1 and was able to remove it safely and completely with her post surgery treatment being just radiation only and no chemotherapy. So, those nights of discomfort and unpleasantness of mom’s cancer plague me a few times and, while I watched Our Friend, I felt the resonating feeling as family and friends reached out to me and my parents for support and help. I did tear up a few times as some of my emotional parts in what could’ve been with my mom’s situation if she didn’t catch the cancer early. It’s bringing to me tears just thinking about it now. So, no matter what outcome might have with my mom (a promising good one…. knock on wood), I definitely felt something while watching this movie and I think others will feel the same.
In the presentation category, Our Friend meets the industry standard of a movie of a similar caliber. Naturally, a film like this is more geared towards its characters and acting rather than its setting and background locales. Thus, the film doesn’t heavily focus on such cinematic aspect. That’s not to say that the film’s various set-pieces and settings isn’t well-handled as they are and feel very organic and real, which corresponds with the movie’s sentimentality. Nothing grand and /or opulent, but feeling like true and in the real world and that’s what I think that Cowperthwaite and his team were going for. So, the efforts made by Cara Brower (production designs) and Samantha Englender (art direction) are commendable in the movie. Everything else, seems to be the “status quo” of filmmaking endeavors such as this. As a side-note, the film’s score, which was composed by Rob Simonsen, is quite effective in the movie; demonstrating some moving moments of tenderness and dialogue character built scenes in various parts that seem to draw out the story’s emotional bits.
There are a few problems that I noticed while watching Our Friend that, while not completely derailing the project, do draw a bit of criticism from viewing it. Perhaps the most prevalent one is in its emotional drama. Of course, as I mentioned above, the film does have plenty of emotional drama that will certainly tug at the heartstrings and will make viewers shed a few tears here and there. That being said, the film does stand to being a little bit “sappy” and “melancholy” when depicting these particular emotional scenes of in a way that can be a tad reminiscent to a Hallmark of Lifetime TV movie. It’s not as emotionally manipulative as say as something as The Art of Racing in the Rain or The Good Dinosaur, but I can definitely see some of the gears turning in a few sequences that Cowperthwaite wants to direct. Additionally, since Cowperthwaite, decided to present the film in a non-linear fashion, the film does feel a bit disjointed in a few sections. I get it that Cowperthwaite and the writers for the movie’s script were trying to go for a more a bit more unconventional method of storytelling and examining different aspects of these various characters (strengths and pitfalls alike), but it feels a bit unbalanced, especially since a few areas are fully examined enough and are merely glossed over for narrative purposes. There’s certain aspects of character-based moments that could’ve been fleshed out, especially when dissecting / examining the various nuances of coming from a cancer patients, including the one diagnosed, the spouse, or the friend. What’s presented works, but I felt that there could’ve been more…. a bit grittier in its already emotional substance.
Naturally, the slow unraveling of the plot feels a bit conventional as one can ultimately see where the movie is gonna end up. Of course, movies about a person with a fatal illness have been done many times over and, while Our Friend comes up better than most, it still offers the well-trodden narrative path that many have seeing before; rendering the film to be a tad predictable / formulaic in its undertaking. I guess that problem comes with the territory when delving into a film’s story such as this. Nevertheless, it is a problem, which is only hampered a bit further more with its runtime of 124 minutes (two hours and four minutes). As a whole, the film is slightly elongated a bit too much and could’ve been trimmed down a bit instead of presenting longer pause moments of a variety of scenes. I get that Cowperthwaite and his team wanted some dramatic poise to set the mood, but the movie ends up dragging slightly in a few pocket areas.
What definitely helps overcome such problematic areas that the feature can’t overcome is in the film’s cast, with a selection of acting talents that certainly do shine the most and are handled quite well…. even if a few moments are held back due to the script handling of character dialogue. Naturally, the movie’s main three leads of actress Dakota Johnson and actors Casey Affleck and Jason Segel, who play the film’s characters of Nicole and Matt Teague and their friend Dane Faucheux. To my surprise, Johnson, best known for her roles in the Fifty Shades trilogy as well as How to be Single and The High Note, gives quite an impactful and heartfelt performance as Nicole, a woman who is diagnosed with cancer and battles it throughout the entire narrative. Given her wooden and almost laughable performance as Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades movies, it was quite endearing (almost a surprise) to see Johnson acting in such a better light, especially given the subject matter of her character. To that effective, Johnson succeeds by playing Nicole with a very human character as we follow her mournful journey with the various stages (pre and during) of cancer and how that affect her life. It really is a testament to Johnson’s talents for “digging deep” into a role like this; making Nicole Teague’s journey in Our Friend a very human and soulful look of someone going through such tragedy.
Likewise, Affleck digs deep into his role of Matt Teague, a character who is caught in the middle of everything. While his brother has been more in the limelight (all triumphs and pitfalls), Casey, known for his roles in Gone Baby Gone, Manchester by the Sea, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has become quite the revered actor, especially projects that are destined to be more critical praise for their character / story rather than commercial success. This is probably why Affleck chose a project like Our Friend and he definitely excels in the movie. Affleck has a certain way of subtle acting and does so with his portrayal of Matt by showcasing plenty of nuances of a man who is struggle to cope with his current situation that he finds himself. Again, much like Johnson’s Nicole, the character is very much rooted in humanity and Affleck shines; trying to be for his wife, while also coping with his own world as well as being a father to his kids. All in all, Affleck is great in the movie and another solid character role in his catalogue of work.
While Johnson and Affleck do solid jobs in their respective roles, Segel, who is known for his roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, and How I Met Your Mother, delivers a very much more subtle and strong performance in his character of Dane Faucheux. Granted, Segel has become a very well-rounded individual from acting, film script handler, and novel writer, but most people will remember him for his more comedic roles as seeing in How I Met Your Mother or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Perhaps that’s why I’m quite impressed what I saw of Segel in Our Friend; portrayal such a rich and human style character in Dane that feels like organic and relatable. In the movie, Segel acting talents are quite measured and grounded; making Dane such a human character, who is trying to find his place / purpose in the world. There were moments where the movie could’ve delved a bit deeper into Dane’s backstory, but what’s given definitely suffices. Nevertheless, Segel’s Dane is terrific in the movie and definitely anchors the film at being the story’s subject matter centerpiece (i.e., our friend).
As a side-note, looking beyond the film’s main trio, I do have to say that young actresses Violet McGraw (The Haunting of Hill House and Jett) and Isabella Kai Rice (My Dead Ex and Without a Body) do exceptional jobs in the movie as the two young girls of Matt and Nicole (Evie and Molly Teague) respectfully. The two can argue as being the stereotypical “children” character archetypes, but both McGraw and Rice handled with their scenes with their adult co-stars are solid, especially in a few emotional impactful sequences.
The rest of the cast, including actor Jason Bayle (Happy Death Day and The Big Short) as Rick Bragg, actress Cherry Jones (The Perfect Storm and Signs) as Faith Pruett, actress Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) as Teresa, actor Reed Diamond (13 Reasons Why and Moneyball) as Peter, actress Denée Benton (UnReal and The Gilded Age) as Charlotte, actress Azita Ghanizada (Alphas and Ballers) as Elizabeth, actress Ahna O’Reilly (The Help and Jobs) as Gale, actor Sampley Barinaga (Your Honor and Breaking News in Yuba County) as Kenny, and country music artist Jake Owens as Aaron, are the film’s minor supporting players. Again, with the movie heavily focusing on the primary leads, these particular players in Our Friend are delegated to being more sidelined supporting characters in the movie; offering up small moments for the principal cast to interact with in the story. I kind of expected this and, for the most part, these particular talents get the job done and are solid in their limited roles.
Through illness and struggle, Dane finds purpose and means in carrying for Nicole and Matt Teague in such difficult times in the movie Our Friend. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s latest film tackles the hard-hitting issues of cancer and how it affects all around and how friendship can come in various forms through small acts of comfort and relief and how we all must cope with such life-altering challenges. While the movie does struggle a few times in pocket areas (i.e being slightly predictable, elongated, and a bit disjointed at times), the film shines brightly with a moving tale of grief and friendship, especially thanks to Cowperthwaite’s direction, the source material, an honest / heartfelt drama, and some terrific character acting from its main leads (Johnson, Affleck, and Segel). Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, there were a few things that could’ve been ironed out in its execution, but the film (as a whole) was meaningful and poignant, especially those who have lived through this situation (whether it be from Nicole’s point of view, Matt’s point of view, or Dane’s point of view). It definitely resonated with me and appreciate the honest and sincerity that Cowperthwaite did with this film. Thus, my recommendation for this film is a definite “highly recommended” as it should be seeing by all, whether you lived / going through such a laborious time period or just looking for some good acting in a drama film. In the end, Our Friend is a touching and beautiful love of loss, illness, and bonds of friendship that bind us all. This is definitely one movie that won’t forget anytime soon….
4.3 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: January 22nd, 2021
Reviewed On: February 8th, 2021
Our Friend is 124 minutes long and is rated R for language