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TIFF 2019 Review: The Friend

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

Friendship.  A simple word, yet one that carries with it all sorts of complexities.  Friendship isn’t simple, and true friendship – the kind that sees you through the worst times in your life, is exceedingly rare.  These relationships are exactly what director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey) sets out to examine in her second narrative feature, The Friend.

Based on an award-winning Esquire article of the same name, this true tale looks at the interwoven relationship of three people.  Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is an actress asked out on a date by a member of the stage crew, Dane (Jason Segel) before he realizes that she is already married to Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck).  Despite the awkward initial dynamic, the three end up forming a tight bond and friendship spanning years.  When Natalie gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, despite living in different cities, Dane makes the trip to help Natalie, Matthew and their two daughters cope.

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Dane initially tells his girlfriend that he’s going to be there for just a couple weeks, but he essentially leaves his job and his life behind, unable to remove himself from the responsibilities he’s taken on in the Teague household.  While it seems as though he is the ultimate friend, his role as caregiver is also giving him purpose and family, something he hasn’t achieved yet in his own life.  As Nicole’s illness progresses, and her other ‘friends’ drop away, the question then is, what is the true meaning of friendship and how far do you go?

The cast does an excellent job of earning your tears here with Segel in particular tugging on the heartstrings.  Though none of the leads particularly stretch above what we’ve seen before, it’s hard not to find a heart-warming moment with any of the cast members here.  Johnson does an excellent job performing as the caring, loving mother even as cancer ravages her body.  Affleck’s character is the least likeable of the bunch but even still he garners empathy by film’s end.  And at that end the always sublime Cherry Jones, who plays a hospice nurse, only makes the heartache worse and the significance of Dane’s friendship even more profound.

While The Friend does tread a fine line between feature film and Hallmark movie, I have no problems admitting I fell for it hook, line and sinker.  My tears were well earned.  Despite its long 124 minute run time the film never feels drawn out or without purpose.  It does jump around timelines, which can sometimes be disorienting but are all organized as either “before diagnosis” or “after diagnosis”.  This allows the filmmaker to effectively provide more complexity to the present storyline while also offering a bit of an emotional break from Nicole’s declining health.  There are some happy moments amongst the tearful, however tissue would be highly recommended as an accompaniment to the theatre.

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