AFI Fest 2019: The Friend, by David Bax
We can argue about to what extent a film critic is supposed to be a consumer advocate but I will at least use this very simple platform to warn you that, if you’re planning to see Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s The Friend, you’ll want plenty of tissues to wipe the tears from your eyes or, more likely, to full-on sob into. But The Friend‘s ability to make you cry is not the reason it’s so great–plenty of bad movies are capable of such emotional manipulation. Yes, this is a cancer drama; it even has a spot-on reenactment of the moment in Stepmom where the terminal patient furtively observes what her family will look like when she’s gone. But The Friend‘s power lies in the commitment of Cowperthwaite and her cast to making real human beings a bigger part of the story than the disease itself.
Based on a 2015 Esquire feature, The Friend is the true story of a woman named Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson), her husband, Matthew (Casey Affleck) and, crucially, their longtime friend Dane (Jason Segel), who moved in with them to help them get through the worst days of their lives. With helpful onscreen text marking the dates, the story jumps back and forth throughout the time between Dane’s initially meeting the couple to Nicole’s eventual death.
On the one hand, a touching true story like this one seems ready-made for dramatization. On the other hand, such material can be like handling nitroglycerin, dangerously easy to fuck up. But, while Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby elide some of the more shockingly anti-sentimental stuff from the real Matthew’s Esquire essay on which the film is based, The Friend mostly succeeds by playing it real, whether that means being sad or being funny or allowing any of the subjects to occasionally behave unappealingly.
That verisimilitude extends beyond the characters to the setting itself. Cowperthwaite shot on location in Fairhope, Alabama, the same town where Nicole Teague grew up, raised a family and died. A sense of place and Southern-ness permeates The Friend, from the folksy extras to the sound of crickets.
What most accounts for The Friend‘s success is that it’s not actually a movie about good people getting through tough times together. That’s the suit it’s dressed up in but this is, ultimately, a look into how we define a person’s worth. Our default basis for determining whether or not someone is a “loser” often has to do with financial success or being, as one asshole character is described, “goal-driven.” Dane is the best person in the movie but he checks none of those boxes. He’s a free spirit and that’s made him extremely lonely around people who aren’t like the Teagues, which is most of them. This sad Candide leads us not to the usual lightweight uplift of inspirational true story movies but to The Friend‘s real lesson, spoken by Matthew: “Getting your shit together is overrated.”