Cancer movies are a tricky, hothouse breed of drama. Any touch of Hollywood schmaltz — anything less than scrupulous honesty in matters of medicine and death — may strike those who’ve lost a loved one to cancer as offensive while sending those who haven’t running for the exits. The movies like to uplift us with messages of courage and endurance; disease destroys those things. Why watch? Whose genre is it, anyway?
“Our Friend,” a new film arriving on demand, threads the needle better than most, in large part by focusing on the human connections radiating out from the sickbed. Based on an Esquire article by Matthew Teague — it won a 2015 National Magazine Award — it opens with a hard, steady scene of Teague (Casey Affleck) and his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), discussing how to tell their young daughters that their mother has been declared terminal after two years of treatments. It then shuttles back and forth over the years to take in the couple’s relationship with each other and with their closest friend, Dane (Jason Segel), who moves into their house to help hold things together and never leaves.
Teague’s article is called “The Friend,” while the movie is “Our Friend”; the title change is more of a group hug that allows Nicole an equal say in the matter. The article is also brutally specific about her physical and mental decline as the cancer spread and medication eradicated her personality. It’s a difficult read, more difficult than the movie is to watch, and if you want to fault the writer (Brad Ingelsby) and director (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) for softening the blows, go ahead — some early critics have. I never felt “Our Friend” was lying to me, though (and, for what it’s worth, I’m sensitive in such matters). Its interests, rather, reach beyond the patient to the concentric circles of the people in Nicole’s life coping and struggling and, in some cases, looking away in fear.
The role of Matthew is a kind of variation on Affleck’s Oscar-winning turn in “Manchester by the Sea” — a father of daughters emotionally flailing while watching his wife die. The actor brings to it silence, sorrow, anger; Matt’s a globe-trotting journalist, used to talking his way in and out of impossible situations or catching a plane when the going gets rough, neither option possible here. Johnson is dewy and strong until the med-assisted psychosis kicks in late in the film; it’s a solid performance but the closest “Our Friend” comes to prettification. Of the two daughters, the elder, Molly, has the larger story line, and Isabella Kai is in fact heartbreaking as a 10-year-old working overly hard at becoming the grown-up in the house. Many of the film’s small grace notes belong to her: Molly simply watching her mother from the dark beyond a bedroom door, for instance.
Segel, a generous sad sack of an actor, plays Dane as that good friend you have who’s a little lost and over-sensitive for the world. “Our Friend” doesn’t sugarcoat his sense of being out of joint; at one point a year or two before the diagnosis, Dane disappears into a depression-fueled walk in the canyons of the American southwest, where only a sympathetic German hiker (Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones”) pulls him out of his funk.
Moving from his home in New Orleans to care for Nicole and Matthew in Alabama loses Dane his job, girlfriend, and the understanding of friends and family over the course of a year. The film understands this may look strange from the outside — it brings on a jerk neighbor (Jake Owen) to crack wise and be put in his place by Matt — but otherwise chooses not to question Dane’s motives. When Cherry Jones turns up late in the proceedings as a hospice nurse and Dane is introduced as a family friend, she says, “Well, what a nice friend,” and that, we sense, is that.
Some things remain a mystery. If we were a little bit better as people, this decent, clear-eyed movie hints, they might not.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Written by Brad Ingelsby, based on an article by Matthew Teague. Starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel. Available on demand. 124 minutes. R (language)