[TIFF Review] ‘THE FRIEND’ ensemble cast shines in this messy but poignant tear-jerker

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James Clay // Film Critic

THE FRIEND

Rated R, 124 minutes.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel, Casey Affleck and Gwendoline Christie

TORONTO – On paper, the new weepie cancer drama from filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, titled THE FRIEND, plays like a Judd Apatow comedy, but slightly tweaked to add more fuzzy feelings instead of raunchy jokes.

It’s a delicate story based on a 2015 Esquire article by journalist Matthew Teague (portrayed by Casey Affleck). In the story, Matthew chronicles his wife Nicole’s (Dakota Johnson) cancer diagnosis. This narrative also includes the couple’s wayward best friend, Dane (Jason Segel), who keeps them from falling apart.

Most films about a bumbling houseguest wind up being a comedy of errors featuring a jerk who won’t go away. THE FRIEND is about a seemingly selfless person who’s searching for a purpose. The character finds out that, even though his bank account is low, he can offer something much more valuable: his time.

Cowperwaithe’s film works as a bumpy personal essay that flips back and forth between years before and after the diagnosis. Right at two hours, the film finds humor interspersed with the dramatic scenes that take a little too long to find its footing. However, when the director hits the right notes, it’s a concerto of small moments that build up swelling emotion.

The film opens with a harrowing moment: How do you tell your children their mommy is about to die? This is the task Nicole and Matt are faced with when it becomes clear she won’t be around to see their two daughters’ next birthday. THE FRIEND goes on to answer that question with sensitivity for its subjects.

Spanning over the course of 15-year period, there’s a history to couple’s relationship that develops by cutting back to various points in time. Some are a bit goofy (like Matt’s fainting spell) while others are more profound (like Dane stepping up to take the family dog to be put down while Nicole is sick in the hospital). The succession of anecdotes gets us on their wavelength as the cast develops a shorthand that the audience can merrily roll along with.

Nicole and Dane meet under strange circumstances, Dane harmlessly asks her out on a date having no clue she has a husband. Matt, whose a pretty relaxed guy, takes it on the chin, but is a bit annoyed when he realizes he’s got to entertain this bozo who just hit on his partner. The two bond, and Dane starts to integrate into their lives. With little life direction, this comes easy for Dane, and Segel’s puppy dog eyes play upon your attachment for his character quite well.

Using the jumps in time, we’re made privy to the intimate and slight moments from the trio. Matt starts to obtain notoriety as a war journalist, which has him traveling overseas for long stretches. Nicole is still a working actor in a theater company, and Dane is the manager at a lame department store.

Affleck is relaxed as ever in selfish dad mode, while Johnson seems a tad out of place alongside these two men who are in their forties. Quibbles aside, if you can find sympathy in your flawed characters, like Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay, you must be doing something right.

Coweperthwaite’s sensitivity for the subject is apparent. Given her work on BLACKFISH and the underrated MEGAN LEAVY, this is a filmmaker who is drawn to human interest stories. She’s also very good at making me cry in movies. She’s three for three so far.

THE FRIEND isn’t perfect, and neither are its central characters. Cowperthwaite’s film has an undying affection for the ones we love and how hard it is to ask for help sometimes. What could have been a cancer drama deifying its victim is more about the shared experience of what it’s like to be caught in the middle this terrible disease. Playing with perspective justifies the film’s lofty narrative shifts. As the story reaches its natural conclusion, it proves that all the meandering was worthwhile.

Grade: B

THE FRIEND screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. A release date is unknown at this time.