How close are we to our friends? The ones where we share our secrets to, the ones where in a blink of an eye would help you out in your personal struggles, the ones when you're facing a financial problem? And what if one of them who does all of the above and yet end up being the most mysterious as skeletons from their past have arrived? Dear Friend tackles these questions with a breezy, urban setting in Bangalore where five friends find out whatever happened to one of their closest friend who has absconded and what truth lies ahead of them.
The plot revolves around Vinod (played by a charming Tovino Thomas) and his friends Jannat (played by an empathetic Darshana Rajendran), Arjun (played by Arjun Lal of Thanmatra fame), Sajith (played by Basil Joseph), Shyam (played by Arjun Radhakrishnan), and Amutha (played by Sanchana Natarajan). These are your typical urban friends who party, drink, smoke weed, have an exciting career prospect ahead of their lives, and mostly play pranks albeit a bit mean-spirited in nature.
The pranks here serves a purpose to bring a dramatic shift in the narrative as it brings a character change within as well as red herrings in the process. In the opening scene, we see Vinod is forced to dress up as Superman with a homemade costume wearing underwear on top of his own clothes, and is then paraded around the streets celebrating with his friends. Then when they enter a bar, Vinod faces an embarrassing predicament as someone inadvertently livestreams him without consent and all of them end up apprehended by the police.
Vinod afterwards proclaims that as everyone has birthdays, he would give it back to the next person's birthday on another level. You might think this would be the driving force for the movie and in a way it is, but then the movie does something subversive it kind of mutates this initial feel-good buddy drama into a mystery about a lost friend.
Little details given as visual cues must be noted to understand a character's personality, for instance Vinod; as aforementioned his outburst towards them isn't just a proclamation, it's foreshadowing for how he really is to them. Or be it from Jannath when Vinod brings in a puppy, she initially gets petrified to even pet him but when the puppy is berated by one of the friends, she instantly picks him up to console the puppy. Or the narrative about Vinod's dead mother, where a cop sees his tattoo marked "Amma" in Hindi, how he created a jingle based on her, and in the climax, how he made new friends by telling his "tragic" story about her. (You'll understand the double quotes later on)
These details are so well thought out by writers Sharfu, Suhas and Arjun Lal (based on the latter's true events experienced by him) as they bring a usual template reminiscent of movies like Bangalore Days, but instead subvert all the usual narrative beats into an unusual tale of how distant we truly are towards our friends.
The cast here is top-notch as all have a meaty yet likeable characterization. Tovino Thomas plays Vinod initially as this empathetic, caring yet emotional guy who would later on go missing; I say initially because the latter half is where his character gets really interesting. My favorite aspect of this performance is that after the end (which we'll get to in a bit), you'll realize if he really meant to do all this to help them or is it actually to help himself. It's a very tricky performance and Tovino deserves a lot of respect for pulling this off with ease.
Darshana Rajendran, as usual is great, playing Jannath with a sweet, quiet demenaour but wouldn't mind to stand by her decisions even if it affects her personally. Arjun Lal, Basil Joseph, and Sanchana Natarajan all deliver memorable performances but it's Arjun Radhakrishnan who has the major impact amongst the ensemble. His palpable anger, the shame he faces when his business partner/friend has abandoned him, is all done with micro-aggressions, you'd believe he's really feeling those emotions and we empathize with his reaction.
The movie is also gorgeously shot by Shyju Khalid and the editing by Deepu Joseph deserves a shoutout especially in one scene where a relative of Vinod's opens a door and we're supposed to expect Jannath and Arjun in front but instead we get into a flashback sequence with Vinod standing in front of the relative.
This is famed actor Vineeth Kumar's sophomore feature as a director, and here his filmmaking abilities is more subtle and simple despite the complex twists and turns the narrative brings forth. And Justin Varghese's score is likeable yet stings you with a feeling of uneasiness which words wouldn't describe better.
Which brings me to the ending. This has quite possibly been it's most divisive aspect and understandably so, this gives an incomplete, unsatisfactory feeling where not all answers are given when an explanation is demanded. But for me, it works really well, as it is by design supposed to be like that. Sometimes, you let the actors invoke emotions to tell how they really feel, the explanation comes off as secondary in this case.
You only get a proper payoff as to why Vinod talks about his mother like that, and like the friends we feel uneasy and betrayed by the revelation. If the answers were all told by word though instead, honestly it would've robbed off every emotions conveyed by the actors here.
Considering this has happened with many of the friends we know, we only realize they're not always the ones we truly perceive them as they are. Sometimes, they put on a different face towards different people and when confronted, you have to face their darkest tendencies head on.