Nicole Teague died on September 9, 2014, just less than two years after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and six months after the official prognosis that it had terminally spread throughout her stomach. In May 2015, her widower Matthew wrote an article ― titled “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” and published in Esquire ― that told a slightly different part of that story than even he expected. It certainly took the subject of the essay by surprise, and it provides the story of Our Friend, a deeply felt and surprisingly sprawling story of dying and the toll such a phenomenon ― to which we must all succumb at some point ― can take on a marriage and, most unexpectedly, a tenured friendship.

Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay somehow delegates the central action pretty equally among the three figures at the center of the story without losing sight of any of them, which gives us a chance to settle in with characters who are knotty and difficult and, naturally, become entirely sympathetic. The narrative jumps around in time, beginning with a prologue set near the end of the story and flashing backward (then forward, then backward again, etc.) to give us a full picture of Matt’s (Casey Affleck) and Nicole’s (Dakota Johnson) shared and separate journeys with the knowledge of mortality that hangs over their heads.

That prologue teases at a conversation held much later, when the weight of the disease and the surrounding context of the discussion that takes place have had their chance to settle upon the viewer. Matt and Nicole have decided to tell their daughters, the elder Molly (Isabella Kai) and the younger Evie (Violet McGraw), that Nicole will die very soon. This has been planned between the two very cautiously, so as not to allow the dread of Nicole’s imminent fate to take over all other concerns for her children.

This is not the only feature of the prologue, though. The other part winds up being just as important: Dane (Jason Segel), Matt’s friend since their early days as college roommates, is keeping the girls company while their parents prepare for a talk for which there can be no adequate preparation. An aspiring stand-up comedian with a questionable degree of motivation, Dane entertains the girls with some silly rhyming schemes until Matt comes to collect them.

Ingelsby and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite do an impressive job of setting up the characters and what the film will really be about with this concise prologue. As much as it is about the journey in only one direction for Matt and Nicole, it is also about what happens when their friend Dane comes to Fairhope from New Orleans for an intended period of two weeks and then stays for the remaining two years of Nicole’s life.

These two stories ― of Matt and Nicole’s slow train to the inevitable and of how Dane found himself in their company ― are the entire plot of the movie, and the main draw is the trio of performances at the movie’s center. Segel is a purely wholesome presence as Dane at first, until deeper insecurities and a well of depression eventually emerge. A sojourn to a desert brings him within the vicinity of Teresa (Gwendoline Christie, in a brief but potent performance of empty smiles and sad remembrances), and the film pauses the main action simply to consider why Dane might want to take a long walk by himself. It’s strong work.

Johnson paints a portrait of dying with dignity that, whether true to life or not (the real Matthew talked in the article of how many substances a human seems to excrete during his or her final days), is utterly heartbreaking. A scene involving an angry outburst ― which, as a hospice care worker (Cherry Jones) eventually tells them, is a sign of a dying brain ― is utterly wrenching. And then there is Affleck as Matt, a man who seems to have engulfed himself in grief. The actor’s performance is comparable to another one he gave in recent years as a man in throes of grief – in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, of course – and his work here is no less emotionally precise.

Cowperthwaite guides all of this with a gentle and compassionate hand, while also orchestrating (together with editor Colin Patton) an unconventional and highly effective method of allowing this story to blossom in front of us. There isn’t much that is new in the way Our Friend examines the unknowable specter of death, but the film does provide a unique perspective on whose story death really is. It belongs to the person who is dying, of course, but their loved ones are part of this, too.

There isn’t much that is new in the way Our Friend examines the unknowable specter of death, but it does provide a unique perspective on whose story it really is.
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Unconditional Friendship
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