Late in the weepie cancer story Miss You Already, oil-rig worker Jago (Paddy Considine) comforts his pregnant wife Jess (Drew Barrymore) after a big, painful blowout with her best friend Milly (Toni Collette). “No more drama, all right?” he pleads. “I promise,” she answers, because people in movies are absolutely terrible about making promises they can’t keep. It’s unclear why anyone in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy, a personal emotional conflagration, a sometimes troubled marriage, and a movie like this would think she could get away with swearing off drama. And sure enough, the promise barely lasts out the scene. This is a movie about personal drama. Veering away from it would be like 101 Dalmatians deciding to ditch the dogs 30 minutes into the story.
Jess and Milly’s big mutual drama begins in childhood, when Jess moves from America to London, and Milly sticks up for her in grade school, teaching her to swear British-style and to laugh at the bullies who pick on her accent. They grow up together, sharing all the big moments in life, including when a barely teenage Milly loses her virginity just barely backstage while Jess jumps around in the spotlight, or when Milly gives birth to her two kids, with Jess playing cheerleader the whole time. When Milly is diagnosed with cancer and begins chemo, their life-is-a-party banter barely flags. But it does start to feel strained, as Jess works to keep Milly’s spirits up through an epic drinking binge, hair loss, and vomiting spells. Their history lets them fall into a familiar-old-friends routine during potentially ugly moments, and their familiarity and mutual affection help spackle over a lot of the growing cracks in their relationship. But as Jess struggles to get pregnant, and both Jago and Milly’s husband Kit (Dominic Cooper) have to fight for their wives’ attention, Milly’s neediness and prickliness combine in unpleasant ways.
Miss You Already is essentially the distaff version of 50/50, another based-on-personal-experience story about two friends shutting out the world while trying to get each other through cancer. And like 50/50, this film is funny and familiar in the way it evokes a specific intimate friendship, complete with rituals and in-jokes, while still feeling mildly distasteful in the way it discards the rest of the world. At least Miss You Already doesn’t demonize people outside the sacred friendship circle, the way 50/50 does: Kit and Jago are both sincere, sensitive men who do their best to support their wives and contain their understandable jealousy at never being the first priority. But they’re also largely background props in a story that’s first and foremost about how women relate.
That’s a rare thing on the big screen, and it’s refreshing to see a film written by a woman, directed by a woman (Catherine Hardwicke, continuing her pull away from the supernatural fantasy of Twilight and Red Riding Hood, and into a more mainstream sort of fantasy), and closely involved with the complicated tensions in how women deal with each other. But Miss You Already is also intentionally exasperating, as it explores the question of how far loyalty goes, and how selfish a dying person deserves to be. At one point, Milly delivers a drunken speech about her own shallowness and narcissism, and she isn’t wrong. She can be openly repellent in ways that have nothing to do with the surgical scars and protruding bones she finds so repellant in herself. Hardwicke’s queasy handheld camera and intimate pushes into her characters’ faces seem like they’re intended to be confrontational, but they just come across as unsettled, in a story that doesn’t entirely grow up and settle down until it starts to deal meaningfully with death.
Tonally, Miss You Already is a slapdash mess of achingly sincere moments and tasteless jokes. It’s at its best when it authentically looks at the tension between Jess’ attempts to be a good friend and to have a good life, but Morwenna Banks’ script (based on her radio play, which was based on her life) more often plays to the rafters, with broad emotions and deliriously tacky humor. And it frequently goes overboard, with ridiculously manipulative scenes that don’t even try for a human grounding: Jess shrieking for her dying friend during childbirth; Jess and Milly confronting each other on the moors in a scene attempting to play off Wuthering Heights; Jago trying to tune into his child’s birth from the oil rig, with a group of burly drillers waving his router helpfully in the air. Occasionally, the film comes down to earth, with Hardwicke and Banks implying they might finally stop with the ridiculous, outsize, unbelievable drama. They promise. But they have their fingers crossed the whole time.