In one of the few moments in “The Friend” when Dane (Jason Segel) isn’t hanging around the Teague family, there’s a dinner party in which an old pal from college recalls him as a bit of a weirdo, freely giving out “bro hugs” after he got a few beers in him. Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matthew (Casey Affleck) don’t see it as strange at all, knowing Dane’s empathy runs deeper than most and see it as one of his strengths, but looking across the table at some people they’re only starting to know in Fairhope, Alabama, they’re eager to change the subject as Dane’s become the butt of a joke. By this point in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s disarmingly beautiful second narrative feature, there are other markers to consider Dane as a failure – the dead-end job at a sporting goods store, the stream of relationships with women that don’t work out, if they consider dating him at all – but his ability to be passionate and considerate, which can often get in the way of goals the rest of society has set, becomes a refreshing rebuke to a world that’s largely given into cynicism towards unselfish acts of generosity.
It’s why “The Friend” seems like such an unusual story when it shouldn’t be one, with Dane coming to the aid of Matthew and Nicole, when the latter gets cancer, and offers to help shoulder the burden of responsibilities with two daughters to take care of before the end arrives. The death sentence is particularly cruel when it finally sets a firm date for the trio whose timelines have never aligned, with Dane first asking Nicole out when working on a stage production before knowing she’s married and Matthew is able to escape a desk reporter job in Shreveport to cover wars in the Middle East. Brad Inglesby‘s effortlessly elegant script coupled with strong performances show the sacrifices they all make, whether it’s Matthew swallowing his pride to accept Nicole‘s friendship with a guy that once saw a romantic future with her, or Nicole coming to terms with an absent husband doing what he loves, but Dane makes the biggest one of all in putting his life on hold to tend to them both in their time of need, even when it could be seen as detrimental to his own progress.
“The Friend” recognizes how special that typically unseen kindness is and more impressively is able to articulate it in a subtle yet tangible way, starting with the pitch perfect casting of Segel as a gentle giant uncomfortable in his skin or as minute a detail as accompanying a scene of Nicole checking off bucket list items to Led Zeppelin, which will be felt by general audiences as something they haven’t heard before when for most filmmakers, the opportunity to play “Ramble On” actually is a bucket list item given how hard the rights are to obtain. Inevitably, there are certain mechanics that set in to wring our maximum tears, but Cowperthwaite is careful not to ever let the film feel manipulative, allowing the grace and compassion of its characters shine through. (Even a small, supporting turn from Gwendolyn Christie as a German hiker who comes across Dane in the Grand Canyon is quite affecting.) “The Friend” may tell its story by jumping around in time, but it’s just the film the world needs right now.