Gabriela Cowperthwaite makes movies about true stories, at once unbelievable and unforgettable in the gaping depth of their emotion. After the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which exposed the violent injustice inflicted on a captive orca at SeaWorld, came the filmmaker’s feature debut “Megan Leavey” in 2017, retelling the relationship between Corporal Megan Leavey and military working dog Rex. For her sophomore feature “The Friend,” Cowperthwaite builds on Matthew Teague’s 2015 Esquire article of the same name, in which the author recounts the last two years of his wife Nicole’s life following her terminal cancer diagnosis. The couple survived until the end and lived a better life than could have been expected when their best friend, Dane Faucheux, moved in to lend a hand and ended up staying a year.
The film uses the article as a starting point, but becomes something more sprawling and diluted at the same time as it flits between time periods for no discernible reason. A gut-wrenching conversation between parents and daughters cuts to a meeting in a bar 13 years prior. The edit skips back and forth, from one, two years pre-diagnosis to the final breaths and goodbyes – without always weaving the narrative to make these back and forths really calcify. The diagnosis date is used as a hook at first but then fades, instead, letting the story scatter and stutter around heartbreaking fragments instead of sticking to one traditional path.
But “The Friend” is successfully anchored by its three leading players: Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck, and Jason Segel. Johnson plays Nicole – steadfast, loving and confident until the end. It’s refreshing to see Nicole’s journey through bursts of energy, as romantic and envious as it is manic and uncontrollable, rather than just seeing her condition as ticking the box of a spectral source of sadness—flimsy, forgettable.
As Matt, Affleck puts in yet another convincing performance as a husband and father broken by the injustice of death after “Manchester by the Sea” and his own directorial effort from earlier this year, “Light of My Life.” It does mean he’s hardly treading new ground here, but it’s easy to see why the actor has become some kind of go-to: with each role, Affleck deploys a slightly different shade of this same husk of a man, with a cracked voice and lonely eyes full of pain— and does so with unrivaled conviction.
But this story is nothing without its unwavering and unquestioning source of loyalty in Dane as brought to life by Jason Segel. If the casting choice on paper could raise eyebrows — this seems like a severe left turn almost too cunningly campaigning for a ‘Look, he can do Serious too!’ wash of praise — it proves to be a tremendously smart and rewarding decision. Segel can do serious, but also so much more: his Dane is reliable and patient, but also never loses his sense of humor or his own need for company, for friendship, for love.
The film becomes about much more than the all-consuming disease. Nicole’s condition remains, of course, the epicenter of the narrative and mood, but Dane’s own labor in coming to terms with his independence creates a vital atmosphere that makes “The Friend” feel more significant, and more affecting, than this one intimate story. The sensitivity of these performances, particularly from Affleck and Segel, offers a reckoning on sincere friendship and the limits of devotion that remains with the viewer, long after the days of waiting and the years of pain have finally come to an end.
There can be a sense of skepticism or even dread circling every next movie about a person with cancer — because it’s devastating but also, in terms of the films supposedly pushing this industry forward, rather than just jogging on the spot, it can feel like it’s been done so many times before. Thankfully, “The Friend” finds so much to live for — the special nature of the Teagues’ relationship with Dane asks a braver question about friendship through trauma. How do you know who will stick around? When one bad day turns into weeks that turn into months, people just stop showing up. The stories we tell tend to focus on those who speak and turn up, but this one lets its characters yearn out loud for those who simply couldn’t face it anymore.
It’s hard to stick around, but it’s harder to be the one who’s stayed and still needs to feel like they have someone to lean on too. In times of extreme grief and fear, when the haze of pain blurs everything else, it takes the relief of someone as open-hearted as Segel’s Dane to keep hope alive. Where the story’s ending might not transcend this family’s fate, “The Friend” lets its audience believe in their future—through the tears, with each other. [B]