Nicole was everyone’s best friend. She’d laugh and smile and, in the aura of her presence, it felt as though her warmth was sunshine, all for you.
But the sun doesn’t shine forever. And sometimes, night comes quick.
Nicole was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. By 2013, she and her husband, Matt, knew it would kill her. “It’s everywhere,” the doctor told Matt. “Like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen.
“It’s going to get very hard, Matt,” the doctor warned. But no warning, no matter how dire, can prepare someone for what’s to come.
Nicole’s sun still shone brightly at times. She’d laugh and visit with friends. She’d dance in fountains and play charades. And then she’d collapse, her strength gone, with some of it never to return. And when the friends left the house and closed the door, the clouds would roll in: Anger. Pain. Bitter accusations, fueled by fear and drugs. Matt knew that as Nicole headed deeper into night, many of her friends wouldn’t—couldn’t—face the ugliness and sadness to come.
“They’re gonna fall away, one by one,” Matt said. “By the end of the year, Dane will be the last friend here.”
Dane. Nicole and Matt’s best friend. Years ago, he’d asked Nicole out before he knew she was married to Matt. Dane been her friend before he was Matt’s. But that was long before. Now, he’s their rock and anchor.
He arrived one night around Christmas. Nicole’s cancer was rampant, and now the family dog was sick, too. He came to whisk the dog off to the vet, who solemnly announced that the pooch was dying. Best to put her down tonight, the vet said. Would he like to come in and hold her?
“It’s not my dog,” Dane said.
“She knows you,” the vet said. “It’ll be better than being with strangers.”
That night, when he returned to Matt and Nicole’s house, he offered to stay for a bit. “You don’t need to do this alone if you don’t want to,” he told Matt. “I have some vacation days.”
Matt accepted the offer, so Dane stayed for a few days. A few weeks. A few months. He quit his job, lost his girlfriend, gave up his own life to stay.
Dane will be the last friend here, Matt said. Prophetic.
It’s easy to be a friend in sunshine. But to be a friend in the night—when wind blows cold and red eyes stare from the darkness—that’s something else again.
Dane, as you might’ve gathered from the movie’s very title, is this story’s hero. To tabulate the gifts he gives and the sacrifices he makes for Nicole and Matt … well, one, it’d be impossible, and two, it’d be a little spoilery. Let’s just say that Dane’s brand of friendship is both breathtaking and, frankly, a little convicting. Those of us who have friends like Dane in our lives … well, they’re not just blessings. They’re miracles.
But we shouldn’t overlook the strength and character we see in Nicole and Matt, either. Both are dealing with something unimaginable, where each new day seems to bring a fresh horror. But Nicole, as long as she can, faces cancer with a sunny smile and a steely resolve, summoning extra strength for her daughters (Molly and Evie) as long as she can—and writing each of them a series of long letters when she knows she won’t be there anymore.
And Matt—well, he has perhaps the most thankless job of them all. After years working as a traveling journalist, he lost contact with his family. His oldest daughter is still bitter over the years when he wasn’t around. Now, he’s trying to repair those relationships and to be a real father to his girls—and mother, too—all the while caring for their real mother and bearing the brunt of her disease-addled rage.
We see some other characters of character, too, albeit only briefly. Faith, Nicole’s hospice nurse, is described by someone as “an angel.” And, indeed, she feels like it at times—both professional and caring. And then there’s Teresa, whom Dane meets during a solitary hiking trip when he’s in the throes of depression. She confesses to him that at one time, she was suicidal—and Teresa believes she sees the same inclination in Dane. “You’re not as alone as you think you are,” Teresa tells him. “If you need someone to check in on you, call me.”
There’s surprisingly very little spiritual reflection, especially considering the story’s context.
One of Nicole’s “bucket list” items is to serve as Grand Marshall for a Mardi Gras parade: Mardi Gras, of course, has religious undertones—a time to celebrate and party before the somber season of Lent begins. (We also see Christmas trees and other evidence of the holiday.) Matt bows his head for a moment in what could be interpreted as a prayer. When Matt’s about to tell the girls about the terminal reality of their mother’s illness, he’s told to shy away from phrases that make death seem less final, like “Mommy’s going away for a while.”
Long before Nicole’s illness, she and Matt shower together. We see lots of skin and some kissing, but nothing critical is shown. Later, Matt washes a listless (and presumably naked) Nicole in the tub, as she laments how “ugly” she looks now. Matt revisits when they first met, when he thought Nicole was the prettiest woman in the world. He adds, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You always will be.” We see the two in bed, under the sheets but apparently naked, during a getaway together.
Dane and Matt have to get over the awkwardness of Dane having once asked Nicole out—when she was already married to Matt. (Dane didn’t know that at the time.)
Dane confides to Nicole that he’s crushing on someone else. But his new interest isn’t into him at all and winds up making out heavily at a party with her new beau (much to Dane’s disgust). But Dane does find a girlfriend eventually: They kiss, and she gives him the key to her apartment before Dane leaves to stay with Nicole and Matt. Dane also is a fledgling stand-up comic, and he does part of his routine based on phone sex with his girlfriend.
Matt’s job takes him away from home a lot—often with a female fellow journalist or co-worker—and that journalist makes an unmistakable pass at Matt. You can see that Matt is tempted, but he doesn’t cave here.
[Spoiler Warning] That said, infidelity comes into play in his marriage to Nicole. We never see anything, but hints of an affair (including an incriminating email) nearly end their relationship.
Matt is a “fainter,” and he falls to the floor once or twice. Matt threatens to punch someone in the face. Wine bottles are smashed. Angry arguments—sometimes involving a bit of pushing—take place. When Matt and Nicole’s daughter Molly jabs an elbow into Dane’s middle, he pretends that his whole body is broken because of it. Nicole accidentally burns Molly’s arm with an iron.
Nicole is dying, of course. We also see and hear references to suicide. A dog is euthanized off camera.
More than 15 f-words and about 10 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused about a dozen times, thrice with “d–n,” while Jesus’ name is abused four times. There’s a crass reference to the male anatomy.
Nicole winds up on a dizzying number of medications, many of which impact her mood and even her consciousness. At times, she seems as high as a kite from them, laughing at a bit of foil or wobbling her head in a near catatonic state. Matt forces a pill into her mouth at one point when she appears to be unconscious.
Characters drink wine, beer and champagne. They sometimes hang out in bars or nightclubs. At a Halloween party, Dane serves up punch that he warns parents has rum in it. (So don’t give it to the children, he intones.)
Matt sits on a toilet, and we see the side of his rear while his pants are around his ankles. We hear an obscenely graphic joke about doing something with someone’s anus.
We learn that something’s seriously wrong with the dog by something he, um, left on the floor and its hideous smell. We see what is apparently vomit on Nicole’s nightgown. We hear about how some kid “hurled” in Dane’s place of business. Matt and Nicole’s kids jokingly call Dane “Fart Face” and “Stinky Butt.”
While this isn’t necessarily a “negative,” Matt and Nicole opt to keep the seriousness of Nicole’s sickness away from the children. Nicole doesn’t want to tell them “until my quality of life declines [to the point] where there’s just no hiding it.”
“No one ever told me the truth about dying. Not once.”
So wrote the real Matt Teague in his award-winning Esquire article “The Friend”. Let’s be honest: This movie, based on Teague’s story, doesn’t tell the truth about dying, either.
Yes, Our Friend is hard to watch. It deals with aspects of a dying woman’s cancer with painful candor. But compared to what really happened, Our Friend is Pat the Bunny compared to Watership Down. The Esquire article is raw and brutal and grotesque in its detail of Nicole’s decline. If the movie had included all of that, our “Other Negative Elements” section would be 10 times as long—even though everything “negative” would also be absolutely true, too.
That’s the funny thing about Plugged In. And movies. And life. Some truths are simply too painful to show, even in this less-sensitive age of ours. Some realities we can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, handle. Not until there’s no avoiding them.
While Our Friend steers away from those messes, it gives us others—mainly foul language, which largely earns this film its R rating. But we see some uncovered skin and hear discussions about infidelity as well.
But Our Friend also gives us a pure, moving example of the most God-like love we have: charity.
Charity is a misleading word in today’s society: Some see the word and think pity instead. But in some ways, it’s just the opposite: It’s when we love someone so much that it mirrors, in some hazy, imperfect way, the love God has for us. The sort of love we have for our children, perhaps—where we’d give everything we have for them.
Dane embodies charity in a way that we can understand the word, in its classical and even biblical sense, better. He’s not just being nice, or giving his friends something he can spare: He gives his all—stepping in when to help his friends in the most uncomfortable, traumatic time imaginable.
At one juncture in the movie, a drugged, psychotic Nicole lashes out at both Matt and Dane. And while Dane sends Matt away, he stands there as Nicole verbally abuses him.
“I hate you!” She screams. “I hate you! Get out!”
Softly, quietly, he tells her, “I’m not leaving, Nicole.”
Dane will be the last friend here. And so he is.
And so it is with God. When we’re at our most unlovable, He’s there for us. When we rage and scream at the unfairness of it all, He’s there.
Dane isn’t perfect, and neither is this movie. But I think we could all stand to be more like him, anyway.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.