From start to finish in the new movie Our Friend, the unnatural horror of death by cancer is central: how it savagely interrupts plans; how it permanently severs relationships; how it renders the formidable body a gradually more fragile thing.
The film—released January 22 for at-home streaming—tells the cancer story of Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson), her husband Matt Teague (Casey Affleck), and their best friend, the titular character and heart of the film, Dane (Jason Segel). Toggling back and forth in time, before and after Nicole’s terminal diagnosis, Our Friend opens with the heart-wrenching moment when Nicole and Matt discuss how to tell their young girls their mom is dying. The emotional rollercoaster doesn’t let up from there.
It’s a lovely, timely, powerfully acted film that celebrates and models Christlike sacrificial love. Yet while grounded in Christian virtue, the movie noticeably omits its story’s connections to faith.
We don’t like to confront death so directly. Contemporary Western culture does everything it can to hide death. This is partly why the last year has been so paralyzing for many. COVID-19 confronted us with death in ways we couldn’t ignore. We know people who’ve died from it; we’ve newly pondered our own mortality. As hard and tragic as it has been, this heightened death awareness has been valuable.
Watching a film about death during a pandemic might not sound appealing. But Our Friend was cathartic for me. My wife and I wept our way through it—probably more tears than I’ve ever cried in a film. But they weren’t cheap, tear-jerker tears like those you might find in The Fault In Our Stars. They were tears in response to straightforward truth: death is real, unavoidable, and gut-wrenching.
My wife and I wept our way through it—probably more tears than I’ve ever cried in a film.
Our Friend (rated R for language) is also cathartic during the pandemic because it shows the natural response to a dying loved one: physical proximity. We want to be with them. Holding their hand, crying by their side, hugging their weak body. One of the most devastating aspects of COVID-19 has been how so many have been deprived of physical presence with suffering and dying loved ones. Our Friend is a beautiful portrait of embodied, relational love in action. It’s a film about being there for each other in the most literal, incarnate sense. No screens, no filters. In the flesh. It’s messy and inconvenient. But it’s unnatural to be deprived of it.
As much as Our Friend (skillfully directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite) is a movie about death, it’s even more a film about friendship. Adapted from Matt Teague’s 2015 Esquire article, “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” the movie beautifully celebrates the rarity of a faithful friend who—over many years and in many seasons—shows up when you need them and is as willing to sharpen as he is to soothe. Dane isn’t a perfect human, but he’s a close-to-perfect friend, and a convicting reminder to all of us that the vocation of “faithful friend” is a high calling indeed.
The loneliness and brutality of this life cannot be endured without relationships. By God’s design, we are fundamentally relational beings. The myth of autonomy—that the best life is the totally self-directed, unencumbered, accountable-to-no-one-but-yourself life—is a devastating falsehood. It’s especially so in a technological world where it’s easier than ever to isolate and maintain an illusory “connectedness” that masks real loneliness. We need each other. We are happier when we are honest about this need.
The myth of autonomy—that the best life is the totally self-directed, unencumbered, accountable-to-no-one-but-yourself life—is a devastating falsehood.
Dane may seem “too good” to some viewers. Our cynical age finds virtue suspicious. But friends like Dane do exist. Maybe you’ve had one or been one. Christians especially should aspire to be friends in the mold of Jesus—a friend of sinners, the ultimate “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24), the friend whose sacrificial posture embodies the highest form of love (John 15:13). We’ll never attain the perfection of Christ’s friendship, of course, but if our lives can model Christlike friendship in small ways, that can be a powerful witness.
Our Only Hope
As important as friendship is, it can’t save. As much as a faithful friend or spouse can give glimpses of Christlike love and presence, none can bear the weight of our existential hope. When faced with suffering and death, the love and proximity of friends and family supplies some measure of comfort. But our only hope in life and death, as the New City Catechism states (among other catechisms), is that “we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
As much as a faithful friend or spouse can give glimpses of Christlike love and presence, none can bear the weight of our existential hope.
The absence of any direct engagement with faith in Our Friend is noticeable and sad, and it plays into our secular age’s tendency to look horizontally for hope and transcendence. But the film’s omission of faith is also sad because it’s a glaring departure from the true story and real people the film depicts. In recent interviews, Matt Teague has spoken openly about his Christianity, quoted Tim Keller on friendship, and described how faith was a lifeline when Nicole died. For example:
Without faith, there would only be the prospect of oblivion. . . . Through faith, my girls and I have the hope of something on the other side. We have the certainty that their mom is in a place of great joy. Our faith was essential to our survival.
While I get that one film can’t cover every aspect of a story, it seems odd that something like faith—so “essential to our survival”—didn’t make the cut. Perhaps giving faith a brief scene or two, or lip service, would have felt woefully inadequate to capturing its vital role in Nicole’s life. Maybe it would have felt rote or too easy. Even so, giving it no attention whatsoever feels even worse. It’s a missed opportunity to show how a “faith-based” story can make for a compelling, non-cheesy movie.
Without pointing audiences to an ultimate hope, the film ends up offering only a tenuous hope: the hope that a faithful friend will be on call to check on you in life’s tumultuous seasons; the hope that someone in your life will be by your side as you take your last breath. As we’ve seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, these are good and precious things, but also fragile. In the end, the friend we have in Jesus is the only one who’ll be there every step of the way, with us when all others are gone. He’ll be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) and beyond. Our friend to the end. Our only hope in life and death.
I loved Our Friend and commend it to you, but I wish it had made more of our only real hope.