Review: ‘Our Friend’ transcends fatal illness drama to find depth in its characters

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck in the movie "Our Friend."
(Claire Folger / Gravitas Ventures / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

When it comes to a film’s success, it’s not always about the story that’s being told but how it’s being told — and the talent of those who are bringing it to life. Such is the case with “Our Friend,” a movie that may at first evoke a reaction of “been there, saw that” but ends up proving a tender, enormously moving retelling of a heartbreaking time in the life of a family — and the best friend who helped them through it.

Based on a 2015 Esquire article by Matthew Teague, the movie follows the true-life story of journalist Teague (Casey Affleck) and his luminous wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. More than a year later, as caring for the increasingly ill Nicole and their active young daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), becomes too much for Matt, his and Nicole’s old best friend from college, Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), moves from New Orleans to quaint Fairhope, Ala. (where the film was shot), to live with and support the Teagues.

The fine, well-observed script by Brad Ingelsby (“American Woman,” “The Way Back”) is not all-consumed by the anguish of Nicole’s downward spiral but instead effectively sets it within the context of an event-filled 14-year period, from her college days to her 2014 death.


The film absorbingly shuttles back and forth in time, tracking key moments in the trio’s lives that not only illuminate their pasts but effectively prepare us for who Matt, Nicole and Dane become, for better and worse, when the going gets tough. It adds up to a skillful kind of mosaic that pays powerful emotional dividends. (I wasn’t crying, you were crying.)

As capable, earnest, loving and engaging as these three characters often are, they are also drawn with candor and dimension: Their flaws become as integral to the story as their strengths. Whether it’s the rudderless Dane’s trouble committing to a career or a woman, the newsman’s drive that takes Matt away from his family or singer-actress Nicole’s suspect marital fidelity, these are complex, unpredictable folks who we still greatly care about.

Anger, depression, jealousy, resentment and more all vividly factor in here and help the characters avoid the kind of “saintliness” that can slicken these sorts of tragic tales. Even older daughter Molly who, unlike her little sister, intuits the gravity of her beloved mother’s condition, strikes a verbal knife to the heart of her besieged dad that’s as painful as it is utterly real.

Jason Segal and Dakota Johnson in the movie "Our Friend."
(Claire Fogler / Gravitas Ventures / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Yet it’s the strength of its cast, in the capable hands of director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish,” “Megan Leavey”), that truly makes the film such a poignant and profound experience. Segel is wonderfully empathetic as the devoted if flailing Dane, a man who’s better at caring for others than he is for himself. (A sequence in which an adrift Dane hikes the Grand Canyon is especially stirring.) As the ill-fated Nicole, Johnson impresses with affecting range — from flirty, ebullient and adoring to stalwart, enraged and resigned; it’s a lovely performance. But it’s Casey Affleck’s exceptional turn as Matt that reminds us why he won an Oscar for his work in “Manchester by the Sea.” He brings such a visceral, fine-tuned sensitivity to his often conflicted, overwhelmed and grieving character that it’s hard to look away. He’s a knockout.

The estimable Cherry Jones also tears our hearts out in her few late-breaking scenes as a compassionate hospice nurse.


As well, there’s an evocative use of tunes by Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. and others, including Steve Winwood, whose wistful classic “Can’t Find My Way Home” couldn’t be more touchingly placed.

'Our Friend'

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 22, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; Temeku Cinemas, Temecula; also on VOD