I'll probably get pilloried for saying this, but don't read anything critics at the Toronto Film Festival have written about Miss You Already — particularly if those critics are men, and especially if condescending labels like "chick flick" and "weepie" and "disease-of-the-week" make your blood boil. You already know if you're the kind of person who wants to spend 112 minutes with director Catherine Hardwicke's unabashedly sentimental tale of a lifelong best-friendship between brash party-girl Milly (Toni Collette) and her sweet, do-gooder counterpart, Jess (Drew Barrymore). Also, you probably already know whether or not you'll cry while watching Miss You Already, which will correspond directly to whether or not you bawled during Beaches, Steel Magnolias, and Now and Then. Just go ahead and pack that Kleenex, because you're going to need it.
We meet Milly and Jess as girls, and these BFFs share everything with each other, from a first kiss with a boy to Milly's first sexual encounter backstage at a rock show — which the girls celebrate with a hug and ecstatic "I just had sex!" squealing. And while the montage of all their shared milestones might be a bit cheesy, it's also a shorthand that any woman with a best friend can understand: the euphoria of finding your person, and the joy that comes from sharing moments grand and small with someone who offers you love and acceptance. Best friends are the family we choose, and in the healthiest of those friendships, they see us more clearly than any other person in our lives. "Milly wasn't always appropriate, but she was always there," says Barrymore's Jess in voice-over, as we see the two friends weeping side by side at the funeral of Jess's mom, arms wrapped around each other while they sing a church hymn. Jess goes on to say she never had many photos without Milly "until now," and the screen cuts to the title card: Miss You Already. Yes, this is not subtle foreshadowing. But damn, if that didn't break my heart.
As the story continues, Milly gets knocked up by her rock-and-roller boyfriend (Dominic Cooper) and embraces cool motherhood, while Jess finds love bonding over power tools with a fellow volunteer (Paddy Considine) for some Habitat for Humanity–like organization. The friends live near each other in London: Milly in a fabulous flat with walls of glass windows, and Jess on a tiny houseboat filled with love. White-lady aspirational-porn elements aside, the movie hits home where it counts: in the unquestioning loyalty and affection between the two women at its center. When Milly gets the diagnosis for breast cancer you knew was coming, it's Jess who's by her side for every chemo treatment, holding her vomit bucket and dishing with her about the imagined private life of Milly's male nurse. We see glimpses of what each character's family is going through, but their friendship is always the focus. Barrymore emanates a goodness and steadiness that would be appealing to a fun narcissist like Collette's Milly, and Collette, as always, is a wonder of empathy, imbuing Milly's selfishness with the biting humor of a woman not prone to letting down her guard; the scene when she tries on wigs after losing her hair is wrenching.
Perhaps it's antifeminist of me to have less stringent standards when it comes to a movie like Miss You Already, which operates entirely on feeling, but with a movie like this, the feeling it evokes for its target audience is the point. In Milly and Jess's ups and downs, I saw flashes of many of my own friendships: the friends who have been rocked by miscarriages, the friend who forgave me for being so scared by her hospitalization that I didn't call or visit for two weeks, the friend I will always miss who didn't make it to 22. Sometimes the hard times become so hard that they threaten to eclipse the beautiful moments of togetherness on which those bonds were built, but Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, Twilight) has a gift for homing in on the tiny interactions of friendship that steady us when our worlds are collapsing.
Every year, I come to these festivals and watch some movie that leaves me feeling so-so while my male colleagues go into a reverie about how such-and-such director perfectly captured the essence of being a divorced guy, or a father, or a boy. I had that feeling at Sundance for two years, with the back-to-back Richard Linklater films Before Midnight and Boyhood, and I remember the shame I felt upon exiting the theater: Why wasn't I as blown away as everyone else? I felt that same shame in a different way while stepping into the sunlight, my eyesight blurry with tears, after watching Miss You Already. It's not a great movie, and it's not going to knock Beasts of No Nation or Spotlight off of any Top 10 lists (including mine) at the end of this festival. But the catharsis that can come from watching it is valuable, and it's insulting to the women who made it, and the women for whom it was made, to dismiss it as weepie chick-flick garbage.
Truth: The week before coming to this festival, I spent an entire weekend curled up in bed with my period, bingeing my way through both Bridget Jones's Diary movies, the Sarah Jessica Parker/Helen Hunt 1985 classic Girls Just Want to Have Fun (if you've never seen it, watch it immediately), and all three seasons of the Australian dramedy series Dance Academy before finally forcing myself to go outside because I'd reached the bleak stage of delving into Netflix's trove of Canadian made-for-TV movies. While here in Toronto, I've seen movies that have left me numb and speechless, and ones I'm sure will win Oscars, but I'm not going to rewatch them years from now when I'm sick or sad or want to spend a couple of hours crying in the dark before grabbing a drink with my best friend. I will, however, be very glad Miss You Already exists for that very purpose, and there's no shame in that.