That’s the question at the heart of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “The Friend,” which stars Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck, and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday.
The film, which is up for sale, is based on a true story adapted from an Esquire article by Matt Teague, who wrote about a childhood friend who dropped everything, including his job and his girlfriend, to take care of Teague and his family when his wife Nicole was diagnosed with cancer.
Dane (Segel) moves in with Nicole (Johnson), Matt (Affleck) and their two daughters as the cancer takes hold, but we discover that he is struggling with his own demons.
It begs the question: How far do you extend yourself to help someone else, and how much of it is a crutch to avoid facing the demands of real life?
The film jumps back and forth between time periods and we see the evolution of the three friends over a decade. There is plenty of humor in the film, the interaction between Segel and the two daughters is unerringly charming, and he does great impressions of brooding Affleck. There was laughter heard at the premiere screening at the Princess of Wales theater, ranging from chuckles to explosive roars.
But there’s no avoiding the melodrama of a young, dying mom. As Nicole declines, there is a toll taken on her two caretakers to account for along with her own deteriorating mental state. The film never stops asking: where is the line between making someone happy and caring for someone when times get rough?
It was no great surprise to hear tearful sniffling throughout the theater. And you may find yourself asking: who will be there for you until the very end?
The film explores marital issues and how to find a balance between career and family: Matt often times goes away for work, leaving Nicole and the kids at home alone. This damages the relationship not only between Nicole and Matt, but also between Matt and his oldest daughter. The writer, Brad Ingelsby, and director don’t make Nicole, or anyone in the movie, perfect.
A special shout-out to Cherry Jones who plays a hospice nurse, dubbed “an angel” by doctors, who comes in near Nicole’s end to help out. Before her unexpected cameo, there was pain and panic. When she steps in, there’s serenity.
Segel is back as we know and love him. This is a serious role for Johnson, who is still best known for her role as a sexual ingenue in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and she steps up fully into the role of aspiring actress, wife, mother and cancer patient. All-consuming grief isn’t uncommon territory for Affleck, who won Best Actor for his performance in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea.”
Plus, he delivers one of the best lines of the movie: when the husband of a mutual friend insults Dane, Matt offers, “Text me when you guys break up so I can drive to your house and punch you in the face.”