Jess (Drew Barrymore) is going into labor, she flashes back through her long friendship with Milly (Toni Collette), who should be with her but isn’t. “Miss You Already” will eventually account for Milly’s absence, and in the course of doing so it will illuminate the intimate, difficult bond between the two women, who met as 10-year-old schoolgirls and have been nearly inseparable ever since.
An introductory montage, beginning in 1986 and spinning into the almost-present, takes us from their first encounter — Jess, an American, has just moved to England — through adolescence to early adulthood and beyond. Milly, the wilder of the two, with an actress mom (Jacqueline Bisset) and a taste for rock ’n’ roll, settles down with a former roadie named Kit (Dominic Cooper) and pursues a career as a publicist. Jess, more inclined to doing good than to partying, ends up working for a social service organization and sharing a houseboat with Jago (Paddy Considine), who goes off to work on North Sea oil rigs when money gets low.
Like most pairs of friends, at least in movies like this one, Milly and Jess achieve harmony through contrast. Milly is blond, with a taste for glamorous footwear (nearly every shot of her begins with a close-up of her shoes); Jess, a brunette, favors sandals. Their conversation is fast and playful and full of sarcastic, tension-defusing jokes. It’s unthinkable that anything could come between them (and it’s clear that the men in their lives, agreeable blokes that they are, have not).
But then, all of a sudden, their lives diverge. Milly and Kit have two children. Jess and Jago, who have none (though not for lack of trying), are contemplating fertility treatments. Milly receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, and while her illness brings her friend to her side, it also strains things between them. Milly, always demanding, now feels she has an unassailable right to be. “You’re a cancer bully,” Jess shouts at Milly during a big argument that takes place on the Yorkshire moors, a Brontë-esque setting that feels both arbitrary and strangely appropriate.
Cancer. Childbirth. Friendship. If you’re not crying already, you will be before “Miss You Already,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke from a script by Morwenna Banks, is over. The movie was unapologetically created for that purpose. To accuse it of being manipulative is like accusing it of being in color. The genre is melodrama. The assault on the tear ducts and heartstrings is part of the contract, and the movie more than holds up its end of the bargain.
And it’s not as easy as it looks. Ms. Hardwicke, whose previous films include “Thirteen” and “Twilight,” has a fast-moving style and a light touch, and an interest in the characters beyond their utility as vessels for prefabricated emotion. She and everyone else, including Mr. Cooper and Mr. Considine, are well aware that the show belongs to Jess and Milly, and that the credibility of the story depends on Ms. Barrymore and Ms. Collette.
Who could hardly be better. Ms. Barrymore is in some ways the sidekick, but she is also the film’s insurance against maudlin excess. She’s too funny and too honest to suffer mutely and sympathize gently. Since Milly is undergoing the greater ordeal, Ms. Collette has more room to show her skills. Though she sometimes leans too hard on technique, she is strongest when Milly’s self-confidence starts to crumble under the pressure of her illness. There are some sitcom beats and moments of smiling-through-tears fakiness, but you never doubt that these women love each other and that the movie’s interest in the complexities of that love is justified.
“Miss You Already” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Bad words, naughty deeds, life and death. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.