When I think about it, it's probably a blessing in disguise that my local movie theater is closed due to COVID-19. Otherwise, I would have been that person weeping uncontrollably into my popcorn bucket as the story of Our Friend unfolded in front of my eyes.
Yes, this new film is a true story and, yes, it's a cancer movie, but it's so much more. In two-plus hours you come face to face with the many ways friendship, marriage and parenting are tested in the face of a terminal diagnosis.
The movie tells the true story of a Fairhope, Alabama, family and it's based on an essay journalist Matt Teague (Casey Affleck) wrote in 2015 for Esquire magazine. In this National Magazine Award-winning piece, Teague talks frankly about death and dying and shares what happens when his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), an actress with a local theater company, faces terminal cancer, its effect on their two young daughters and, possibly most touching, the way in which their best friend, Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), puts his own life on hold and moves in with the family during their excruciating time of need.
While the movie opens in a cancer ward—we know the news is grim and we quickly learn that Nicole's ovarian cancer has now spread all over her stomach—we spend much of the film getting to know these three friends in a plot line that weaves in and out of a chronological timeline. It's an unvarnished look at real life, the pressures of a working family and the toll cancer takes on a family.
Still, I have to say, it's Nicole's story that I found the most compelling. Not only do you see her in flashbacks as a joyful thirty-something mom everyone wants to be friends with (she's the mom everyone calls a best friend) but we also see what happens when those same mom friends stop calling when the going gets tough. Her feeling that her friends have abandoned her is, unfortunately, realistic—and rough to watch. It's also a reminder of how important it is for moms to do whatever we can to support each other in the good times—and bad.
As a loving mom facing the quick end of her life, Nicole is desperate to make memories as she spends her final year with her girls and, again, those scenes are wrenching, whether it's her attempts to fulfill her bucket list, which includes vowing to finish reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy with her daughters by her side, propped up next to her on her bed, dying her hair blue and singing on stage with Katy Perry or getting to be a grand marshal at Mardi Gras.
In real life, Nicole died in 2014, Matthew wrote his Esquire story in 2015 and, five years later, their lives have unfolded onscreen. For me, it didn't take long to find myself halfway through a box of Kleenex. The apex of my sadness: When we watch Johnson writing letters to her daughters to-be-opened at all the important milestones she knows she'll ultimately miss—first boyfriend, wedding and the birth of a child.
It might be because my family has been touched very deeply by cancer and I had prophylactic surgeries when my now 16-year-old son was young because I carry the BRCA1 breast cancer mutation, but I felt immediately the poignancy of Nicole's story and her singular focus: To do whatever she could to make sure her daughters would forever remember her. You'd have to have a heart of stone to be unaffected by those moments in the film where a cancer-stricken Johnson writes those letters, puts them in envelopes, wrap them up in bows and sets them all aside in a box.
These scenes are as real as they are terrifying and sad for any of us to contemplate. They're also a call to action to make the most of every day.
Our Friend is available to stream on demand on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and FandangoNow