As the fall months begin, the climate of the film world begins to change with the seasons. Rather than summer blockbusters, fall and winter releases begin, with certain projects hopeful to get some nominations for the impending Awards Season. Some of those movies premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, with an early debut to the industry and cinephiles who were early enough to score tickets. One such project is The Friend, which had its world premiere at TIFF 2019.
The Friend is a drama from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who had been largely celebrated for her work in documentaries. The movie was adapted from the Esquire article of the same name, telling the true story of a family that is rocked by a devastating cancer diagnosis. The drama follows as Nicole receives the news of her life expectancy. We watch as she and her loved ones navigate the impossible emotional landscape that follows her final months.
Nicole is played by Fifty Shades actress Dakota Johnson, who largely has the film’s weight on her shoulders, as she goes through the character’s physical and emotional transformation. Her husband Matt (who wrote the real-life story at Esquire) is played by Oscar winner Casey Affleck, while the always charming Jason Segel plays the titular friend. They’re a strong trio, who each bring something special into their roles.
The Friend was written by Brad Ingelsby, adapting the tory from Matthew’s signature piece. Some of the dialogue and narration is ripped straight from the source material, giving the film adaptation an extra sense of authenticity and realness. A team of producers brought the movie to life: Michael Pruss, Teddy Schwarzman, Ryan Stowell, and Kevin J. Walsh. The movie is currently working out its distribution and release date, following its TIFF screening.
The story opens on the day Nicole and Matt tell their two young daughters (Isabella Rice and Violet McGraw) that their mother’s condition was fatal. From there, the story jumps around to various points in the couple’s life, while also revealing what their friend Dane (Segel) was doing at the same time. The narrative of Matt and Nicole’s love story is played out, as well as the conditions that make their friend able to be so devoted to them when they truly need it.
The Friend is named after Jason Segel’s character, because Dane moves into the house with the Teague family once Nicole’s condition gets dire. He sees that his friend can’t care for the entire household by himself, and helps the through the most difficult time in their life.
It’s a tough subject matter to tackle, and The Friend is emotionally devastating from its very first scene. Gabriela Cowperthwaite handles the sensitive subject matter with care, and in a way that never feels exploitative. The framing device of moving throughout time helps give each character’s actions more motivation. And as we see the agony of Nicole’s declining health, Cowperthwaite highlights the love and joy that exists within this quirky family unit.
Visually and musically, Gabriela Cowperthwaite deserves an ovation for her work on The Friend. Every single frame of the drama feels deliberate, as the world of the movie is carved out with specificity. The movie is also inherently musical, as the score helps to pull on your heart strings and punch up the already heavy scene work. Dakota Johnson’s character even gets a song of her own at one point, showing just how skilled Cowperthwaite is at capturing a moment and inspiring some very intense feelings for moviegoers.
The performances in The Friend are all pretty stellar, and there’s a very strong supporting cast behind the trio of leading actors. Dakota Johnson delivers a career-best performance as Nicole, rising to the occasion of a role that requires so many colors and sides. Casey Affleck and Jason Segel also pull of emotionally devastating performances, with Segel able to put his signature charm, charisma, and comedy into the role.
Game of Thrones favorite Gwendoline Christie and the great Cherry Jones make brief appearances, with each of the actresses making the size of their small roles felt through nuanced performances.
The Friend manages to move, despite the heavy material and tear-jerking scenes that arrive every 20 minutes or so. Its one downside may be just how emotionally exhausting the experience was. Because the movie succeeds so well in telling its story, it’ll inspire plenty of tears. And weeping on and off for 124 minutes or so will do more than clear your sinuses.
Overall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite really succeeds with The Friend. The movie tells a tragically familiar story of cancer’s effect on a family, and does so with honesty, care, and (surprisingly enough) joy.
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