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Rich Performances Permeate Throughout “The Friend”

It’s hard to find the right tone when telling a terminal illness tale. Over at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Friend was one of the world premieres and offers up a different way of telling a cancer drama. In part, by not focusing as largely on the patient, this is more about the human toll on family members. Moreover, the movie is as much as anything a tale of friendship, and a wholly special one at that. Buoyed by some tremendous acting, this film can be a bumpy ride, but it arrives at a rather compelling place. Toronto may be losing this one in the shuffle, but that’s a real shame.

The film is a look at an extraordinary friendship, based on a true story. When Matt Teague (Casey Affleck) first meets Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), he’s prepared to hate him. After all, he’s the co-worker of his wife Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson) and accidentally asked her out on a date. However, they bond, spurred on somewhat by Nicole really valuing Dane’s friendship. Soon, the three are best friends, leaning on each other when life gets hard, as it can for a struggling journalist and a struggling actress early on in their careers. Dane is unsuccessful in life, but impeccable as a friend. Then, Nicole is diagnosed with terminal cancer and Dane comes up even bigger. Matt isn’t handling it well, and especially is drowning when it comes to taking care of their daughters Evie (Violet McGraw) and Molly (Isabella Kai). So, Dane quits his service job and moves in to help. What’s supposed to only be a few weeks turns into a much longer stay, costing him is girlfriend. Dane is undeterred, however, providing a rock for all four of them, even until the bitter end, and all the while the deterioration of his friends is taking a toll on him as well. Gabriela Cowperthwaite directs a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby, in part inspired by Matthew Teague’s award winning article. Rob Simonsen composed the score, while cinematography is by Joe Anderson. Supporting players include Gwendoline Christie, Reed Diamond, Azita Ghanizada, Cherry Jones, and more.

A trio of terrific performances help to elevate this movie. Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, and especially Jason Segel deliver here, investing you in a way that the filmmaking isn’t always able to do. Affleck has blown us away time and time again, so the capable way he depicts grief and a warts and all caregiver is affecting. Johnson is luminous and warm pre cancer, while unafraid to dive into the darker aspects of the illness towards the end game. Then, there’s Segel, who is easily best in show. His performance as a dedicated friend willing to put his failing life on hold to save others’ is often nothing less than captivating. He’ll blow you away.

One hopes that Segel will take this as a sign to take dramatic work more often. While he’s very funny when the script calls for it, this is serious work that stands alongside his turn in The End of the Tour as his best to date. His character is the most complicated of the trio and the way Segel is able to pull it off, preventing you from wondering much about the gaps in his character on the writing level, prove how good his chops really are.

The Friend struggles with tone. At its worst, it zigs when a zag would be way more appropriate, especially when it comes to telling the story out of order. Not going chronologically wrecks the pace and hurts momentum, for only minimal extra emotional impact. At its best, however, it offers up a nuanced take on end of life care, as well as terminal illness in general. Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Brad Ingelsby never quite find the right pacing and the film is undoubtedly bloated at slightly over two hours long. And yet, the final 20 minutes are emotionally resonant, ending on a pitch perfect note. Flaws and all, Cowperthwaite and Ingelsby make it work, largely due to their trio of leads.

Having played at Toronto this year, The Friend will now move towards setting a release date. When it does, this TIFF alumnus is well worth seeking out. If you’re a fan of Affleck, Johnson, or in particular Segel, it’s going to be worth your time. Keep an eye out for this one when it rolls out, most likely at some point next year. It can be a tough watch, but overall…it’s a good one.

Be sure to check out The Friend when it sets a release date!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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