The format of the cancer movie—the deathbed tears, the familial strife, the tasteful headscarf covering a bald head— is a familiar and fairly grating presence at this point, and one not totally upended by The Friend . Adapted from a bracing and devastating Esquire article by Matthew Teague , the movie, which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, elides some of the gruesome details Teague included about the final days of his wife Nicole’s battle with cancer—what the article calls “the parts of dying that nobody talks about.” But it succeeds by sticking closely to the important specifics: that Matt and Nicole and their two little girls were helped immeasurably by the arrival of their friend Dane, an event Teague described as “one man’s collapse, and one man’s refusal to let it happen.”
The central trio is played by Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson (as Matt and Nicole) and Jason Segel as Dane—an odd combination that works here because director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes the effort to make it work. The film flashes back to their younger years, which revolved around a theater company in New Orleans—Matt and Nicole were young and married, and Dane was seemingly at perpetual loose ends. Tall and shaggy and amiable as ever, Segel—in his first major role since playing David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour four years ago—leans into Dane’s easygoing nature, but also his loyalty. You believe that he’s the type of guy who would upend his entire life and move to Fairhope, Alabama to take care of his friends, simply because he knew they needed him. The hook of The Friend is not a young woman dying of cancer, but a man who makes a selfless but incredibly human decision.
Jumping back and forth in time to show life before the diagnosis and the slow decline after it, the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby hones in on a few key conflicts—an infidelity, a crisis of purpose, one asshole friend—to give the story a bit more narrative drive. It doesn’t all quite work, and flashback sequences about Dane feel particularly unmoored from the main story (even though one of them features a brief appearance from Gwendoline Christie in the Grand Canyon. What a sight!). But these three characters do feel real and connected to each other—particularly Matt and Dane, who lean on each other more heavily as Nicole slips away. When someone is dying of cancer, the groceries still need to be bought, the old grudges and wounds still dealt with. The Friend taps into that reality, and finds a more thoughtful way through the sort of story that often feels rote onscreen, regardless of how devastating it can be in real life.
Even when the weepie parts of The Friend begin, in comes Cherry Jones as a frank-talking hospice nurse, or a day-hike for Matt and Dane that ends with the unlikely arrival of a bunch of bikini-clad co-eds. Cowperthwaite isn’t hiding from the emotions of death, but embracing all of them—honing in on the details with the same affection, if not quite the frankness, of Teague’s article. In The Friend , the incomprehensible unfairness of cancer is balanced by our inborn instinct to care for each other. Dane is not a saintly model of sacrifice, but a version of the person we’d all like to think we have in our corner. It’s a small-scale human story, precious few of which make it to film these days. It’s also, if you’re in the market for that kind of thing, an extremely effective tearjerker.
LINK ORIGINAL: Vanityfair