Schultz reviews: 'Our Friend'
“Our Friend” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 124 Minutes, Rated R, Released January 22, 2021:
Love takes a real beating but emerges intact in “Our Friend,” the new movie from Gravitas Ventures now playing in limited release across much of the United States. An honest, unvarnished, and sometimes uncomfortably candid account of one family’s experience with mortal illness, the members of the household find their emotional burden unexpectedly leavened when they extend their family circle to embrace a treasured friend.
Adapted by Brad Inbelsby from Matthew Teague’s May 2015 Esquire Magazine article, a raw and harrowing account of his late wife’s illness and death, “Our Friend” is fairly accurate to the timeline of the original story, especially during the opening scenes which establish the plot. That’s not always a strength--Teague’s article jumped back and forth in time from 2008 to 2012 to 2000 to fill in details as needed and provide further information relevant to the narrative.
Teague’s Esquire article contained remarkably astute observations and perceptions about the nature of death and bereavement. As illness visits Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson) and begins to exact its terrible price, and as Nicole’s health and physical condition declines and decays, she insists on retaining her sense of humanity--her dignity becomes her last and most treasured possession. “I’m still a valid person,” she insists, “I’m still part of this home.” In many ways “Our Friend” is one family’s, and one friend’s, acknowledgement of that essential truth.
The movie’s biggest problem is that a style that worked as a literary device does not always translate to a motion picture. Compelling scenes or narrative points in “Our Friend” are frequently interrupted to illustrate or explain plot details, which becomes both an occasional irritation and a source of confusion. Intertitles help a little, but the viewer occasionally finds himself keeping track of which timeline the movie is depicting through measuring the outward condition of Nicole Teague’s physical health.
Still, with performances this good and a story this compelling, that’s a small enough complaint. Author Teague’s original Esquire article, titled “The Friend,” was given the subtitle “Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” which actually might have been a better title for both the article and the movie, or at least a more appropriate one. In fact, the story could just as easily have been based on the handful of phrases in The New Testament describing Simon of Cyrene, helping to carry the Cross for a few moments during The Passion.
When we ourselves learn that illness or mortality has visited unspeakable misfortune upon a friend, or when we learn a death has occured in a family close to us, most of us simply murmur to the grieving friend a version of the phrase “If there’s anything I can do…” and allow the infinity of the sentiment to remain unspoken. The character Dane Faucheux in “Our Friend” never bothers with the hollow offer--he simply moves into his friends’ home, and sets about sharing their burden. As Teague noted in his original article, “It had never occurred to him to do nothing.”
The title character in “Our Friend,” portrayed in the movie by actor Jason Segal, becomes more than just a supporting player in the narrative, or a comforting countenance hovering in the background like the manifestation of a Guardian Angel...although he sometimes assumes those duties too. Friend, confidant, companion, cook, babysitter, housekeeper--Dane does it all, the definitive one-stop friend. And although he’s sometimes rewarded with insults and abuse from his emotionally-overwhelmed charges, he never falters in his devotion or his sense of loyalty.
Primarily known for his role on the long-running television comedy series “How I Met Your Mother,” the role of Dane Faucheaux in “Our Friend” might be the part Jason Segel was born to inhabit, one he’s been playing in one way or another over his whole career--the lovable sad sack, nice to have around but never the life of the party, unlucky at love, consigned to an eternity in the Friend Zone. In the movie, the friend’s role is naturally augmented with a story of his own, mostly consisting of details only suggested by Teague in his Esquire article.
Compassionate and comfortable, Segel contributes a layered and empathetic performance to the picture. Dane’s obvious devotion to Nicole and Matt, and particularly his rapport with their children, elevate “Our Friend” over and above the level of Hollywood heartbreaker fare such as “Camille” in 1936 or 1970’s “Love Story” (the gold standard for tearjerker pictures) or recent teen-oriented pictures as “The Fault in Our Stars” in 2014 and “Five Feet Apart” in 2019. The role of Dane Faucheaux fits Jason Segel like a glove...and he makes the most of the opportunity.
Matching Segel with a subdued but never submissive performance is Dakota Johnson as Nicole. Prominent identification with a global phenomenon can be a mixed blessing for an actress--surprisingly few performers are able to maintain successful careers as persuasive dramatic actors afterward. First gaining prominence in the lurid “Fifty Shades of Grey” nonsense in 2015 and its descendingly-trashy sequels in 2017 and 2018, Johnson’s been living down her role as Anastasia Steele ever since, and trying to gain traction as a serious actress.
Johnson’s supporting performances in ensemble efforts like “Bad Times at the El Royale” in 2018 and “The Peanut Butter Falcon'' in 2019 would’ve established a persuasive dramatic career for most other actresses. But following her participation in the popular “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, the young performer finds herself trying to emerge from a credibility deficit created by the series’ popularity. The career of actress Tippi Hedren, Johnston’s grandmother, foundered for the same reason during the early 1960s after she appeared in the leading roles in both Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and his blockbuster “The Birds.”
In “Our Friend,” Dakota Johnson doesn’t have her glamour to fall back on. Most actresses after reading the painfully descriptive passages in Teague’s Esquire account of his wife’s illness might’ve strapped on their athletic shoes and fled as fast as they could away from the role of Nicole Teague--during one scene the character weeps to her husband, “People don’t look at me when they talk to me anymore.” But Johnson sought the role. In many ways, the young actress’ job in “Our Friend” is to break the viewer’s heart. And she succeeds.
With Academy Award-winning actor Casey Affleck in the role of Matthew Teague, the character is expanded beyond the scope of observer and emotional cypher in the original article and given a separate plotline. With his star rising and his career as a journalist and globe-trotting war correspondent gaining traction simultaneous to his family’s formative years, making serious career decisions without family consultation, Affleck’s Matt appears selfish and whiny, but gains maturity through his devotion throughout Nicole’s illness. The actor’s real strength has always been in character-driven supporting roles, a talent that serves him well in “Our Friend.”
Journeyman filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite in her second narrative film (after 2017’s “Megan Leavey,” a factual account of a US Marine and her combat-trained dog during their deployment in Iraq) finds that mortal illness is neither attractive nor especially romantic, but still contains cardinal opportunities for the expressions of love between romantic partners...and their loyal friends. Despite the sobering subject matter, “Our Friend” is a surprisingly comfortable movie--by the time the picture ends, the viewer feels as if he’s been through an ordeal in the company of friends.
Oftentimes love appears in the guise of patience and acceptance rather than smouldering gazes or passionate embraces, and the supreme romantic gift is peace and comfort rather than roses and chocolates. It’s a central truth often omitted from the great Hollywood pictures of the past which depict tragic romance...or unrequited devotion. In its unvarnished and undiluted factual depiction of love and its vivid depiction of love’s most intimate and generous moments, “Our Friend” might be the most effective Valentine’s Day movie ever made.
Filmed on authentic locations in Fairhope, Alabama, “Our Friend” is rated R for language concerns and adult situations.