Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “The Friend,” an honest but insistently scattershot true-life tearjerker adapted from the Esquire article of the same name, starts with its most cogent and powerful scene. Dane — a kind, soft, Totoro of a man played by the always sincere Jason Segel — sits on the porch of a midwestern home and plays a game with two young girls. Inside the house, their parents use the calculated moment of calm to strategize. Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) sits alone in the frame, stares into the middle distance, and games out how to tell his daughters that their mother is dying.
There are some phrases he’s been advised not to use; things that might leave the door open for hope. Don’t say “mom’s going on a trip.” When Matthew leaves to get everyone, Cowperthwaite cuts to the cancer-stricken Nicole (Dakota Johnson). The camera lingers on her for what feels like an eternity; a tender irony for someone who’s about to tell her kids how little time they actually have left.
In a kaleidoscopic weepie that soon comes unstuck in time, pinballing through 15 years of life so erratically that it grows difficult to get any sort of emotional foothold, this gripping prologue stands out for its patience, and for how lucidly it maps the love between these people. Grounding this story in the grotesque logistics of death — in the actual process of disappearing — these elegant shots frame the questions that will hang over the rest of the film: What does it mean to share your life with another person? How do permanent relationships change when they’re suddenly put on a clock, and if that permanence (or its illusion) is what makes those relationships possible, what’s left of them when it gets taken away? Also, who the hell is the guy on the porch?
If (the real) Matthew Teague’s article — rooted to the fact that Dane selflessly moved in with his friends for years during their time of need — was so remarkable for how it grappled with these questions, Cowperthwaite’s movie is so frustrating for how it dances around them. Most of the fault lies with the fragmented, nonlinear structure “The Friend” uses to approximate the flowing nature of the Esquire piece. Brad Ingelsby’s script, which is saturated with personal touches and targets all of the best lines from the source material, arranges itself along its timeline by identifying Nicole’s diagnosis as the major inflection point; every scene begins with the date, and where that date falls relative to when she learned she was sick.
At first, it’s easy enough to understand where you are in the scheme of things, and to track the emotional geometry of each scene. The furthest we travel back is 13 years before the bombshell, when Matt and Nicole are a young married couple living in New Orleans. Moody, serious, and somehow warm and withdrawn at the same time, Matt is a real Casey Affleck type. Nicole is his perfect opposite: A vibrant empath who acts in local theater and dreams of being a Broadway star. It’s no wonder Dane, a sweet and goofy member of the stage crew, has a big crush on her. When Dane learns that Nicole has a husband, he rolls with the punches; seemingly without an ulterior motive, he becomes her best friend. He becomes Matt’s best friend, too.
It’s hard to say if Dane harbors an undying love for Nicole, but it’s clear he’d rather be in her life forever than not at all. Some moments suggest the former; you can feel Dane’s heart breaking all over again when Nicole announces that “it’s not fair that I’m the only woman who knows how special you are.” But the subject is never discussed head-on, and the movie’s unstable chronology makes it practically impossible for anything tangible to percolate under the surface.
One moment, Dane is driving the kids around and leading them in a Carly Rae Jepsen singalong because Nicole is in the hospital. The next, he’s consoling her 10 years earlier because Matthew is covering the Libyan Civil War. One moment he’s like a big brother, and the next a babysitter without boundaries. It’s explicit that Dane is running from something, but neither the film nor its other characters seem interested in learning about what he’s running from. Ingelsby’s script often feels like it’s circling an idea about the work of friendship in all of its dependency and grace, but it never finds a safe place to land. Most of each scene is spent just trying to orient the audience into a new emotional landscape; this is a movie that isn’t sticky enough for subtext.
That’s a shame, because Cowperthwaite’s actors have clearly found their way into these characters. Johnson has the least wiggle room, but she always finds Nicole’s validity, even in her sickest moments. Affleck is as sullen as you might expect, but his exhaustion is a palpable force unto itself, and the way he perseveres through it adds an unexpected wallop to the final scene (another moment that’s firmly anchored to a place in time). Segel transcends the “harmless, lovable pal” archetype, and not just through the sadness with which Dane is saddled.
His best moments reek of an almost missionary-like need to help, as he inserts himself into Teague family squabbles with the awkwardness of a stepfather, and he can do that because it’s mutually understood that he’s not going anywhere. That’s a promise no one can really make to another person, not even a mother or a partner, but Dane seldom leaves any room for doubt. He’s the only consistent thing about a movie that maddeningly realigns itself every five minutes. Eventually, he starts to feel less like a friend than an angel in disguise, like a man-child Mary Poppins or a super chill Mrs. Doubtfire. Cowperthwaite’s direction captures the unvarnished truth of Teague’s article, but the film’s overall shapelessness dilutes that truth until time loses all meaning, and 15 years of friendship amount to little more than two hours of frustration.
“The Friend” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.