Friendship gets harder over time. The early years of first shared secrets, sexual escapades, boozy nights on the town, road trips and exploration make for fun, if not frivolous times. But when taller hurdles start appearing and life gets complicated, so do relationships. Those challenging times can strain friendships, and they can also make them stronger.
This is what Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) come to learn in “Miss You Already,” director and University of Texas alumnus Catherine Hardwicke’s “Beaches”-esque tale of friendship, perseverance and love, mostly in times of duress. The nascent friendship and salad days of the two ladies’ friendship is told in simplistic flashback with voiceover. The cheap device initially gives the sense that the movie will paint by numbers in a tiring fashion. But 10 minutes in, after we get the background of ex-pat Jess and English best friend Milly, the stakes get raised and Hardiwcke, who has explored teens angst before (artfully in “Thirteen” and commercially in “Twilight”) brings unexpected visual dynamism to a rather predictable.
A breast cancer diagnosis throws cold water on the heated and humming life of Milly, a fun-loving music PR exec. The kinetic camera pulls in tight on Milly’s somber reaction, and moves around her and husband Kit’s (Dominic Cooper) hip London flat giving the sense of the familial whirlwind that does not abate just because cancer has intruded.
Jess is facing another 30-something crisis, trying in vain to start a family with her gently dutiful but strapping husband Jago (Paddy Considine). As Jess, a tree-hugging and joyfully earnest woman (right in the Barrymore wheelhouse), navigates the fears and anxieties surrounding her own life, she must balance caring for her longtime friend.
Milly doesn’t make it easy work. Rightfully scared by her diagnosis and the prospect of an exuberant life muted by illness, Milly acts out at her friends and family, eventually becoming what Jess labels a “cancer bully.” Milly’s ultimate lashing out manifests itself in an affair that strains her marriage and her friendship.
Hardwicke’s unsteady camera and tight close-ups give the film the unsettled feeling that invades the lives of the terminally ill and those they love, and the visually honest film bravely explores the physical toll cancer and intense treatment takes on those stricken with the illness. But the movie alternates between the clinical and unearned emotion. The second act, which arrives abruptly, is a step-by-step instructional video of what happens when someone gets cancer.
When the tensions mount between friends, it’s hard to feel the urgency or vitality of the conflict because screenwriter Morwenna Banks’ script never truly establishes the individual characters or the complexities of the relationships. The lives don’t feel lived in, and even the comedic scenes feel like added set pieces intended to liven up the story. And just as the relationships begin to have a sense of truth and profundity, the film undercuts the drama with silly rom-com contrivances like a man using a sketchy Internet connection to watch his lonely wife give birth.
“Miss You Already” pulls at the heartstrings, but it’s sometimes hard to believe the faith in the effort. Collette deflates from fierce to feeble with noble grace, and Hardwicke does her best to bring intensity to one of life’s all-too-familiar arduous battles, but the movie falls just short of pulling you fully into its emotional fray.