Our Friend

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Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson in Our Friend.
Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson in Our Friend.
Photo: Facebook/Our Friend

MOVIE:

Our Friend

WHERE TO WATCH:

DStv Box Office

OUR RATING:

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

After being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson)  and her husband Matt (Casey Affleck) come to learn what true friendship is as their mutual best friend, Duane Faucheuz (Jason Segel), moves in with them to take the load off as they try to raise two young girls while Nicole fights for her life and Matt fights just to keep his head above water. Based on Matt's own autobiographical article, The Friend.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

It's interesting to compare and contrast Our Friend with another 2019 cancer drama (the pandemic inevitably led to the delayed release of Our Friend, but both first premiered in 2019), Ordinary Love. Both films are low-key explorations of how a cancer battle takes a steep toll on the relationship between the patient and those closest to them, but the differences between the two are pronounced. And not just that one of these films is British and the other American.

Our Friend is based on a true story but has a relatively softened, Hollywood-ised portrayal of cancer, whereas Ordinary Love is, as far as I understand, entirely fictional, but its portrayal of cancer and the treatment thereof is unflinching in its authenticity. Our Friend portrays a large period of time, non-chronologically; Ordinary Love is simply and directly told over a relatively short timespan. Our Friend has received a middling score on review aggregate site, Metacritic (57), but a more enthusiastic IMDB audience score of 7.3; by contrast, Ordinary Love has a solid 70 rating on Metacritic with numerous five-star reviews and an only slightly lower audience score of 6.6.   

It's a worthwhile comparison because it gets to a fundamental question that lay at the heart of my Ordinary Love review and is tied heavily into my somewhat mixed feelings about Our Friend, too: considering that just about no one on Earth isn't exposed to the horrors of cancer – be it by getting it oneself or by watching loved ones going through it – is there any real necessity to portray it in all its gory detail on-screen? Obviously, dozens of common things are portrayed constantly and often realistically on-screen (sex and relationships, basic emotions, life in an office), but cancer is particularly nasty and is surely not something anyone in their right mind would want to revisit.

Personally, I had great trouble sitting through Ordinary Love because however well made and brilliantly acted it was, it never really justified the misery of reliving the painful real-life experiences that it evoked so painstakingly. It was so close to reality that it never really offered the sort of catharsis that tough movies at their best normally provide. Our Friend, by contrast, may have tested my patience at times, but by not focusing too heavily on Nicole's cancer so much as the relationship between her, her husband, and their best friend, it's a fairly painless watch.

Many critics, frankly speaking, tend to give more positive reviews to films that are "authentic" even if they're as much fun as multiple visits to the dentist, so it's hardly surprising that Ordinary Love received so much more love than the much more audience-friendly Our Friend, which has mostly been roasted – or, more accurately, shrugged off - for being trite and overly sentimental.

The thing is, though, they're not entirely wrong about Our Friend. It is, by any metric, a fairly by-the-numbers cancer-melodrama that, despite its real-life origins, never entirely convinces as it tries to escape the contrived tediousness of its flash-forward/flash-back structure. It's much too long, much too familiar, and much too tidy for it to really make any sort of lasting impact after the credits roll. Most damningly, the characters, though generally sympathetic if sometimes annoying, frequently feel ever so slightly ill-defined. Not two-dimensional, but not quite fully formed either.

In particular, it's especially disappointing that it comes within a few inches of really getting into the psychology of why Dane has put his entire life on hold to help out even his best friends but never quite gets there. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite certainly spell out the possibility that Dane's actions come less from pure altruism than as a way for him to escape his own unfulfilled, purposeless life, but it approaches such ideas with a certain non-committal coyness, keeping them frustratingly (rather than temptingly) just out of reach. The problem is less that the film doesn't resolve Dane's ambiguities – like most people, Dane is obviously a mix of different and sometimes conflicting human drives, but his profoundly good actions certainly speak for themselves – but that it lacks the courage to dive in and handle them head-on.

And that's really the problem with the film, in general. There really is plenty to like here in everything from the film's excellent central performances (Segel is especially terrific here) to its welcome sense of dark humour to it being genuinely affecting at many points throughout (the twice revisited scene of the Teagues telling their young daughters of her imminent death is particularly heartbreaking), but it refuses to ever make the leap from "solidly good" to something more profound, while also refusing to fully embrace being a melodramatic, manipulative tearjerker.

The result is a film that is always less than the sum of its parts and always just that little bit less engaging than it really ought to be. I'm glad it avoids torturous misery porn, but Our Friend would benefit greatly from either a bit of Ordinary Love's steely-eyed grit or, failing that, the unabashed sentimentality of a Spielberg, a Copra, a Curtis. As it is, it's a sporadically moving, basically pleasant and clearly very well-intentioned drama, but I somehow doubt that it does justice to the true story behind it.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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