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‘Our Friend’ Movie True Story
Hollywood retellings of personal tragedy rarely get it right, favoring melodrama and better box office returns over a commitment to the honest, wince-inducing truth. Our Friend, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new film, based on an award-winning Esquire article by Matthew Teague, tells the truth—and it will leave you in tears, not just over the overwhelming sadness and powerlessness of illness and loss, but the resilience of friendship and the spirit to live in the face of it all.
Our Friend tells the story of the journalist Matthew Teague, who once traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, reporting from countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, China, and Ireland, for National Geographic, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, and more. He spent years telling other people’s stories: complex and consequential tales of spies, double agents, and overseas C.I.A. operations. But his greatest story unfolded right at home, in his small town of Fairhope, Alabama. In 2012, Matthew’s wife Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 34. The couple had been together for over thirteen years.
“Since we had met, when she was still a teenager,” Teague wrote, “I had loved her with my whole self.” They had two young daughters together, Molly and Evangeline.
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That year, Matthew and Nicole’s close friend, Dane, came to visit them after Thanksgiving. In the midst of Nicole’s diagnosis, he stayed with them at first for months, and then almost two years, taking on the simultaneous roles of housekeeper, babysitter, and caregiver to help them through. He left behind his life—his job, his girlfriend—to be there for Matthew, Nicole, and their daughters. It’s a story of a friendship so deep, so kind, and so enduring that you almost don’t believe it’s real, but it is. Dane helped Matthew care for Nicole through years of horrors—unsuccessful chemotherapy, hair loss, weight loss, bodily deterioration, and manic episodes when Nicole was hardly recognizable as herself.
In the article, Teague writes:
We don’t tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying. Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It’s grotesque. It’s undignified. No one ever told me the truth about it, not once. When it happened to my beloved, I lost my footing in more than one way. The tiled floor of life—morals, ethics, even laws—became a shifting and relative thing. I smuggled drugs. Lied. Hid money from the IRS.I think I’ve hung on to the sensation of the hospital floor and being lifted away from it because it captures everything that followed in the next two years. The shock of mortality. One man’s collapse. And another man’s refusal to let it happen.
The film, which stars Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, and Jason Segel, is similar to the article in its dedication to telling the truth, with a few notable exceptions. It’s one thing to read about wound packing and fistulas, these unbelievably grotesque and cruel realities of a body caving in on itself in the throes of such an evil illness. It’s another to see them in a movie. Teague was aware of this contrast.
“There are things that I can write about in print, and people can absorb and find to be honest,” Teague said, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “Yet, if you see it onscreen, people are going to throw up their popcorn and run from the theater.”
But while the film spares the audience those exact moments from Teague’s life and the article, it delivers—in stark and shattering detail—the often mundane realities of illness and death in a family. The devastation of these small moments is palpable: we see a short montage of food delivered by neighbors and friends to the Teague house, and a glimpse of preteen Molly carrying a Tupperware of food home after her mother’s funeral.
When Nicole frolics in the town fountain, crossing off one of the items on her bucket list, the scene is joyous and upsetting at the same time. You watch, smiling through the tightness of an oncoming cry caught in your throat, as Dakota Johnson sensitively portrays a woman who’s grasping at life even as it violently slips away from her. The fountain scene, along with the doctor’s words in his diagnosis (“like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen”), is one of the details from Teague’s story that made it directly into the film.
Teague still lives in the same home in Fairhope, Alabama. He has since remarried and a 3-month-old son named Wilder.
Anna Grace Lee
Anna Grace Lee is an editorial fellow at Esquire, where she covers pop culture, music, and entertainment.
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