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'Our Friend' Review | Dakota Johnson's first wow performance carries sweet yet unflinching cancer tale

A trio of wonderful performances, including Jason Segel and Casey Affleck, anchor this tale, based on a true story. You will be crying a lot.
Credit: Gravitas Pictures

ST. LOUIS — We all have a grudge with cancer. How it takes and rarely gives. The way it can level a family like a spring storm would topple a tree in one night. The movies have gone to this dramatic storytelling well many times, some better than others. The best roles strike a perfect balance between love, dread, and time.

What sets Gabriela Cowperthwaite's "Our Friend" apart is its unflinching portrayal of cancer's true impact. It's not just the demolishing of one's body and soul, but a relentless attack on the mind as well. Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) Teague have one of those picturesque American families: the dedicated journalist who takes long trips, but makes all the little moments count extra; the free-willed and passionate artist wife who has an extra tank of life attached to a radiant smile that promises endless fall nights; the adorable daughters, Evie and Molly (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai, respectively), who have fully-formed personalities and very perceptive eyes.

When this terrible disease threatens to rip that beautiful family apart, it's an extremely loyal best friend, Dane (Jason Segel), who comes to the rescue, offering peace not only for the Teagues, but a pleasant escape from his own self-imposed madness.

Cowperthwaite, along with an endearing script from Brad Ingelsby, makes you feel everything in the film. They find a way to pack a full life into a two hour movie, which never felt like a burden to me while watching. All the intentions the filmmakers carried into this tale-based on an article the real-life Teague wrote for Esquire magazine-were fulfilled. There's unconventionality in Ingelsby's storytelling methods, like a series of newspaper clipping stories being acted out in real time and dropped on us every five minutes. Time stamps move us forward and backward in time, showing us the trajectory of a relationship in multiple forms. The movie moves around a bit, whipping us around on this life roller coaster that even a predictable sad end can't hinder. This is the well-made cake, overly sweet but made with care and integrity.

"Our Friend" offers filmgoers the first real look at Johnson's talent. Previous roles may have taken a stab at revealing all of her tricks, but Nicole Teague brings out the earnest wonder that this young actress has to offer. She's like her mom, Melanie Griffith, but with more mystery and a higher ceiling. Like her cinematic dance partner to the end, Jamie Dornan, I won't hold "Fifty Shades" against her, even if "The High Note" was a letdown. This is the first movie that truly depends on her coming through not only in severely dramatic scenes, but all-around emotionally crippling pauses as well. It's an impressive performance.

Affleck amazed me in "Manchester by the Sea," and dazzled me in other gems such as "Gone, Baby, Gone," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford," and "A Ghost Story." As Matt, he offers that immovable resolve that this tripod of a tale depends on. It's stoic, heartbreaking, and pitch-perfect. Some of his best work on an ever-growing resume.

Segel hasn't worked as often as he did when the comedy guy first broke onto the scene, but this is a performance that is worth saving up for. Dane is the glue that holds the Teagues together, but he offers his own brand of baggage to the household-something that I won't get into, because treasure is best found when you aren't looking for it. Ingelsby's words blend very easily into Joe Anderson's cinematography, but they also provide the "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" star the ingredients to give one of his finest performances. Segel is a gifted performer who can bring comedy and drama together without breaking a sweat, and his instinctive humor gives the film that balance. You instantly buy his motherly-type presence here, and he thrives. It's a role that reminds you how much Segel is needed in Hollywood.

Any soundtrack that contains not one but two Led Zeppelin songs is a movie I will support, but the entire setlist here is a euphoric blend of melancholy that represents art having a cup of coffee with life. It's got the make-believe look initially, but you fall in love quickly with the characters, warts and all.

Few films have shown the final stages of this medical battle, when the disease attacks the mind and body. This is where Johnson soars, digging into the hardship without allowing melodrama to get both feet in the door. The movie executes that balance very well, refusing to allow the sweet to overcome the bitter. We see all the uncomfortable battles that cancer can wage, and I respected Cowperthwaite's allegiance to Teague's stories. The nuance here exists in understated drama. Most films that revolve around cancer show the tears early and often; here, the camera pans out when the heavy tears arrive, choosing restraint over audience manipulation. I found that comforting and impressive. Once again, on this playing field, the filmmakers don't need the long touchdown pass downfield; they can just run the ball slow and easy. This film knows when to push and when to let real life turn the pages in our heads.

"Our Friend" is a great film, something for adults of all ages. Maybe even the most disciplined older kid will find lots of meaning and worth here. I waited to watch this film for weeks, trying to find the right time to dig both feet into something I hate so much being treated. But "Our Friend" was hopeful. It showed the nuts and bolts of the struggle, but also promoted the compassion and equity that six months can hold for three people. It represented all of that very well.

While I am stocked up on overhead neighborhood shots for a while, I am also stuffed with emotion as well. The first film in 2021 to make me pause and reflect, and shed a few tears. Cancer sucks and will always be our enemy, but these kinds of stories can pick you up on a rainy day. As the wonderful new film, "The Dig," taught us, we are only part of a much larger tale, one that will never stop moving.

Take some time this weekend for "Our Friend." It's a keeper.

"Our Friend" is currently playing at Galleria 6 Cinemas, Marcus Ronnie's, Landmark Plaza Frontenac, St. Charles Cinema, and Cinema 1 Plus.

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