Our Friend

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 29, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Attractions
“Friend” is a category that is near-endless in scope. We use it to describe a work colleague we have lunch with sometimes, someone we’ve seen at parties whose middle name we don’t know, someone we met playing tennis who never heard the story of how our two-year-old locked herself in the bathroom with the cat. We use that word for the people we deliver casseroles to when things get tough, and those who deliver them to us, never crossing the doorway into the house. And yet we use the same word to encompass a person who gave up his job, his home, and his relationship to help people he cares about through as excruciatingly painful and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting experience as there is, the terminal illness of a young mother. That is the real-life story of Our Friend.

Dakota Johnson plays Nicole Teague, wife of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck), devoted and endlessly patient mother to Molly and Evangeline, and best friend of Dane (Jason Segel), a shy and sometimes awkward guy who has struggled with depression and with direction. But when Nicole’s diagnosis is dire, he leaves New Orleans to move in with the family, saying simply, “I just feel like I’m supposed to be here right now.”

He tells his girlfriend it will probably be just for a few weeks. But he stays as his vacation days get used up and he loses his job and as her patience gets used up and he loses her. He just stays, never asking how he can help, just quietly providing a sense of stability in the home.

“Our Friend” is based on Matthew Teague’s award-winning story in Esquire. In an interview, I asked Teague about Dane, who, as characters in the movie point out, is not successful in conventional terms but whose quiet and extraordinarily sensitive support defines the term “no greater love.” He said simply, “He is my hero. And it’s pretty great to have a best friend who is also your hero.”

Teague also spoke candidly about the two kinds of health care professionals families encounter in critical illness. The first are only about doing anything medically possible to prolong life. The second come in for hospice care, and will do anything they can to keep the patient comfortable and support the family.

We see both in this film, the second portrayed by the great Cherry Jones as the well-named Faith. Pointedly, as really happened, Dane arrives just as both Nicole and the family dog are diagnosed with cancer, and it is Dane who has to take the dog to the vet and be there for what we euphemistically call being put to sleep. Matthew exhaustedly says he wants to make sure the girls do not associate the two cancers.

We see the impact of the illness on Nicole. As the doctor warns at the beginning, the family will see her unlike anything in their past understanding of who she is. There will be confusion, anger, lashing out, and not just from Nicole. But the focus of the film, as the title indicates, is on the friend, who just shows up and says, “Would it help if I stayed with you for a while?”

The script by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Run All Night”) jumps back and forth in time, as though it is all from Matthew’s memory as he writes the story. It opens with Dane sitting on the porch with the girls as Matthew and Nicole rehearse what they will say to let their daughters know that their mother is dying. Though typed titles tell us where we are in time vis a vis the diagnosis, it is sometimes distracting. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who showed great compassion for damaged characters in “Meagan Leavy,” imbues the film with enormous compassion for its characters and the lead actors, especially Segel, bring endless warmth and humanity to their roles, which always feel fully inhabited. We feel their loss. And we feel the sustaining connections that help them through.

Parents should know that this movie is the story of the illness and death of a young mother, and it is very sad. Characters use strong language and there are references to adultery.

Family discussion: What made Dane different from the other friends? Who has been a Dane in your life? Who would you be a Dane for?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” with Seth Rogen playing a character based on himself in the true story of a someone who helps a young friend with cancer, and “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman

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Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Illness, Medicine, and Health Care movie review Movies -- format

Batkid Begins

Posted on July 8, 2015 at 5:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

Children with cancer learn two things, we hear in this documentary about a boy who is being treated for leukemia. They learn how to fight. And, because they are surrounded by caregivers, they learn compassion.

When he was two, Miles crawled into bed with his parents, and they felt a lump under his jaw. It was cancer. As he endured treatment, he became fascinated with the old Adam West “Batman” series. He loved seeing Batman and Robin fight for justice. He loved the way they helped people in need. And he loved their costumes. Miles was a kid who really loved to dress up, especially in clothes that made him feel strong and powerful. And so, when he was five and feeling better, it was time for him to get a special treat from the Make-a-Wish people in San Francisco, the city closest to his home. Their goal was to do something that would “give him a bit of his childhood back.” Kids who have seen more pain, danger, fear, and loss than most adults can handle are given a chance to have a dream come true.  Some want to meet a celebrity or go to Disney World.  Miles wanted to be Batman.  And San Francisco Make-A-Wish chapter head Patricia Wilson was determined to make that happen.

We get to see a glimpse of a girl whose wish was to be a pop star.  Wilson arranged for about 200 people to be there to cheer her on.  She figured the same size crowd for Miles.  But something about the story caught on.  It captured the attention of the city and then the world.  They turned San Francisco into Gotham.  The real-life mayor and police chief taped messages ahead of time that would explain what kind of help they needed from Miles.  People flew in to cheer Miles on in person.  “Batman Begins” composer Hans Zimmer wrote him a special theme.  President Obama sent a Vine with his thanks.  Two billion people tuned in to be a part of it.  The idea of a simple act of kindness for a kid who wanted to be a superhero made a lot of people feel good about the world for a little while.  Everybody got a bit of childhood back, not because of what they got but because of what they gave.

Filmmaker Dana Nachman, who made the documentary after the story was over, shows us how it all came together.  Wilson called Eric Johnston, who is in real life pretty close to Batman without the anguish or the Wayne millions.  He is a stuntman and an inventor.  One of the sweetest parts of the film is the way he adores his wife, who gallantly volunteered to be the damsel in distress whose rescue would be the first of three deeds for Johnston as Batman and Miles as Batkid.  Then they would capture the Riddler in the midst of a bank robbery and rescue San Francisco Giants mascot Lou Seal, who had been taken hostage by The Penguin (Mike Jutan).  Creating each of these adventures, from the casting to the costumes, introduces us to some wonderful characters.  I especially loved the opera’s costume department, who pitched in on their own time to make sure the characters would look real.  Miles’ Batkid costume was donated by another child, whose father had created the costume for him.  Johnston took Miles to a rehearsal space for acrobats to get him comfortable with some simple stunts.  The manager had the brilliant idea of having all the regulars show up in superhero costumes.  Why wouldn’t Wonder Woman and The Flash come to the same place to work out and perfect their skills when they were not fighting crime?

She also shows us how the day unfolded, the plans that worked and the ones that didn’t.  Lou Seal almost didn’t make it because the crowds had become so massive he couldn’t get through.  And of course all day there were adjustments based on how Miles was doing.  At the beginning and end of the film we see an interview with Miles and his family.  Was it what they expected?  Miles’ parents both say, reasonably, that they were stunned and overwhelmed by how gigantic it all became. But Miles, taking it all in stride, just says, yep.  And there it is.  What gives him a piece of his childhood back is having something come together just the way he thought it should.  Making that happen, being a part of it, even seeing it in the film and cheering him on, is a reminder of how much magic we can create, and how important it is that we try.

Parents should know that this is a documentary about a child who is being treated for cancer and a program that provides services and special treats for critically ill children and their families.

Family discussion: What wish would you like to help come true? Why do sick kids learn more about compassion than kids who are not sick?

If you like this, try: the Adam West “Batman” series and the PBS documentary about cancer, “The Emperor of all Maladies”

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Documentary Movies -- format Stories About Kids

Lullaby

Posted on June 10, 2014 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse, smoking, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad themes of illness and loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 13, 2014

lullaby sederAn outstanding cast, a weighty subject, and the sincerest of intentions are almost enough to make up for an undercooked, stuntish, and stagey script in this story about a man who decides to die and the family he leaves behind.

The always-brilliant Richard Jenkins plays Robert, who has been fighting cancer for twelve years, eleven and a half longer than his doctors expected. We get a glimpse of him in a flashback, superbly confident and capable as he crisply guides a boardroom through the details of a complicated transaction and then leaves them behind to take his adored and adoring 14-year-old son Jonathan to lunch.

Garrett Hedlund plays Jonathan at 26 and we first see him getting in trouble on an airplane for smoking in the lavatory, and then persuading a flight attendant not to have him arrested with charm — and a request for sympathy because he is on his way to be with his dying father. He is on his way to be with his dying father, but we get the idea that he has been using that as an excuse for a long time.

This visit is different, though. While Jonathan and his mother Rachel (the lovely Anne Archer) and lawyer sister (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown-Findlay) tell Robert that he can get through this as he has so many times before. But he says, “I fought for 12 years. I’ve got nothing.” He wants to be taken off the drugs so he can see his family clearly. And then he wants them to let him go.

He has a surprise for them. He has given away his money. “I love you both and I raised a couple of spoiled brats,” he tells them.

It takes about a day to sort this all out, and a lot happens. Some of it is touching, as when Hedlund explains why he has stayed away: “It’s hard to love someone with an expiration date stamped on his forehead.” And he did not want to come home until he could be proud of what he had accomplished. Jonathan has to admit that he is the one who is not ready. Rachel is devoted but shows some asperity when no one acknowledges the challenges she faces as the caretaker.

But too much seems artificial. Jessica Barden, like many of the other actors, does far more than it is fair to expect with an underwritten role. In her case it is the plucky dying teenager who just wants to know what one of the normal pleasures of adolescence might feel like, which gives Jonathan an opportunity to duck out on his family as a personal Make-A-Wish, with a chorus of cute sick kids cheering him on. There is a sort of seder in the hospital chapel and an impassioned oral argument. Amy Adams shows up as Jonathan’s ex and Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson are the doctor and nurse. All three are sensitive performances in underwritten parts. Issues and hostilities between family members appear and disappear without the underlying emotional heft necessary to provide a reason for the changes. When Robert says he is proud of Jonathan, it is hard to understand why. And yet Jenkins and Hedlund find something in the moment that makes it matter. Writer/director Andrew Levitas shows promise, but he needs to trust his audience a little more.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of death and dying, including assisted suicide, and it includes smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual references, and strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide when someone should be allowed to die? Have you discussed your wishes with your family?

If you like this, try: Two Weeks with Sally Field

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Drama Movies -- format VOD and Streaming

The Fault in Our Stars

Posted on June 5, 2014 at 6:00 pm

fault-in-our-stars-poster-largeJohn Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars is the story of kids with cancer, but it is not about dying.  It is about living.  This exquisite adaptation is that rare film based on a beloved novel that does full justice to the source material without being static or talky.  The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who showed exceptional sensitivity in the bittersweet love stories “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now” (also adapted from a beloved YA book and also starring Shailene Woodley), and it was directed by Josh Boone, of the underrated “Stuck in Love” (also starring Nat Wolff, who appears here as a friend of the central couple).  

Remember the hospital scene in “Terms of Endearment?”  This one will make you cry more.  But it is sad, not depressing.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose lungs have been badly compromised and who cannot breathe without a nasal cannula attached to an oxygen tank.  Pushed by her mother to attend a support group that meets “literally in the heart of Jesus,” with a guitar-strumming leader who is well-intentioned but unwilling to acknowledge the direness of the circumstances, Hazel catches the eye of lanky Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, and yes, he played her brother in “Divergent”).

She’s the nerdy girl, he’s the basketball-player and cool guy, which is the classic high school movie romantic setup for opposite attraction except in this case what they have in common is more important than what table they would sit at in the school cafeteria.  He is not playing basketball anymore because his leg was amputated due to cancer.  What brings them together is not the cancer but the shared worldview they developed as a result of the cancer, with few illusions but an openness to hope, if not hope for a longer life, at least hope for a better life.  Hazel worries that she is “a grenade,” that the most significant impact her life will have is the devastating grief she leaves behind.

Hazel and Augustus exchange favorite books.  His is a novelization of a video game.  Hers is an ambitious, literary novel by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe, superb in a tricky role).  The book ends abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, when its main character dies, and Hazel is overcome with curiosity about what happens to the characters she left behind.  For all they have lost, they still have “cancer perqs,” privileges that come with the combination of pity and guilt felt by people around them.  Augustus takes advantage of his to help Hazel meet Van Houten.  But it is in the other parts of the journey that they find more important answers and better questions as well.

The characters in the movie like to say, “it’s a metaphor,” but their own story is a metaphor about the issues we all grapple with.  Watching people whose biggest problem should be what to wear to the prom confront the problem of making sense of life, finding meaning, risking intimacy is a heightened version for dramatic purposes.  But these are the core challenges for all of us, whether our lives will last for 16 years or 116.  These teenagers just do not have the luxury the rest of us do of being in denial about how little time there is.

Elgort is marvelous, but then he gets to say swoon-worthy lines like “You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you. All efforts to save me from you will fail.”  On the other hand, he has the challenge of grandiloquent lines like. “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you,” and he says them beautifully.  Woodley is in every way (except literally) the heart of the film, and once again delivers a performance of endless sensitivity, even with a cannula in her nose.  Fans of the book will find key scenes like the egging of a car and the ultimate romantic restaurant date exactly as they envisioned it.  Even the trip to the Anne Frank house, which could have been heavy-handed, is handled well.  Anne Frank is, in a way, the spiritual sister of Hazel and Augustus.  Like them, she had to find meaning in the midst of devastation.  As they walk through the hidden annex where she lived, her words of hope come out of tinny display speakers.  And Hazel’s climb up the steep steps to see it is itself a “shout into the void.”

I like the way they call each other by their full names.  Even though their time is limited, addressing each other with a touch of formality and grandeur is too important for short cuts.  I like the intensity and honesty of their talks; anything less they know they do not have time for.  The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”  The nobleman Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  He is saying that it is we who determine how we live.  But the line that I think of when I see this film is from poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

Parents should know that the theme of the film is teenagers with cancer.  Many characters are very ill and there is a very sad death, as well as brief strong language, sexual references and situation, teen drinking and adult alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What questions would you like to ask an author about a book you like? How should you choose who will hurt you? What makes some infinities larger than others?

If you like this, try: the book by John Green and the films “Harold and Maude” and “Restless”

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