Matt Teague (Casey Affleck), a journalist, has a tough time coping with the fact that his wife, Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson), has terminal cancer. He doesn't know how to tell his children, Evie (Violet McGraw) and Molly (Isabella Kai), will be dying imminently. Their best friend, Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), kindly offers to move in with them to help them during their time of hardship.
The genuinely heartfelt screenplay by Brad Ingelsby treats its characters, Matt, Nicole and Dane, as complex, flawed human beings from start to finish which makes the all the more palpably real and relatable. They each go through their own struggles and help each other in ways that transcend words, much like Maude helped Harold and vice versa through their strong bond of friendship. It's also worth mentioning that this isn't a story with villains; the only villain is a silent one: Nicole's cancer. Dane comes across as a compassionate person with a big heart and empathy, yet he's fallible. His friendship with Matt and Nicole have a few bumps in the road like all friendships do in life. Jean-Luc Godard once observed that cinema is life, after all, so it's a testament to the humanism found in the screenplay that The Friend feels like a slice of life more often than not. Fortunately, the filmmakers avoid turning the film into a maudlin, disease-of-the-week movie. There's no schmaltz to be found nor does it get preachy or lethargic. The final shot and line of dialogue which won't be spoiled here manages to be concurrently haunting, poetic and profound.
The screenplay's weakness, a minor one that's systematic, not systemic, is that it's told in a non-linear structure which only slightly diminishes the narrative momentum and realism. Sometimes non-linear structures work, like in (500) Shades of Summer because they're refreshing and clever, but in this case it's unnecessary because the genuine poignancy of the scenes feel refreshing enough. Going back and forth in time before Nicole's diagnosis and after just makes everything seem more convoluted than it should be. Kudos to the filmmakers, though, for trusting the audience's patience with a slow-to-medium burn which allows the audience to remain fully engrossed in each individual scene. There's just the right amount of comic relief that helps to provide levity to the dark themes so that they don't lead to exhaustion or monotony.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and casting director Mark Bennett should be commended for selected such a well-chosen cast. Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Siegel sink their teeth into their roles convincingly while generating chemistry together. They're each provided with many moments to shine. Siegel, who starred in the underrated I Love You, Man, exudes charisma and warmth. He's an actor reminiscent of a young Gerard Depardieu and, like all great actors, knows how to handle both comedic and dramatic roles. His moving performance along with Johnson's and Affleck's performances help to further ground The Friend in humanism, a truly special effect. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes is a wise, honest and tender story about the importance and meaning of friendship, compassion and empathy.