Welcome to With Friends Like These, a brief look at films with unhealthy friendships in celebration of Ma, which you can buy tickets for right now!
This post contains spoilers for A Simple Favor.
Motherhood is alarmingly hard. No one’s ever truly ready for it, and some never really figure it out. One of the most difficult things that comes from such a daunting task is maintaining your identity and living your own life once your prime imperative shifts to take care of a newer, and terrifyingly more fragile life than your own. That’s made even harder by the (wrong) idea that once you pop out a baby, that baby is your life. Sorry ‘bout those dreams, moms! Dreamin’ is for the childless!
All of this takes us to the friendship of Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) and Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) in A Simple Favor. Stephanie’s an over-ambitious super-mom whose sole focus became her son after her brother and husband died in a tragic car crash. On the flip side, Emily’s the woman who has it all. Killer career, stunning house, hot husband and a great kid. It’s their two children that bring the women together. When Nicky and Miles insist on a playdate, their moms are forced into an evening together.
Against all odds, the two become fast friends. Stephanie’s earnestness intrigues Emily, while Stephanie finds herself fascinated by Emily’s brashness. In the beginning, Emily warns her new and unsuspecting acquaintance that under no circumstance does she want to become friends. But there’s a little bit of darkness in the unassuming Stephanie. That side of her has been pushed down for so long that she can’t resist the allure of another woman (and mom) who refuses to apologize for who she is, how she behaves, or anything at all, really.
Neither woman had any idea that one of them will find themselves ruined after finding their unlikely best friend. The other moms from school joke that Stephanie hasn’t realized that she’s working for Emily for free, but the two of them share more than a few genuine moments together. The trusting Stephanie quickly reveals all, spilling that she slept with her half-brother on the night of their father’s funeral (likely conceiving her son). Emily keeps all of her secrets close to the perfectly tailored vest but, despite her best efforts, she does find herself charmed by her friend’s warmth.
The movie spends just enough time driving home two facts. The first is that while they’re insanely different people, both women love their sons with all of their hearts. The second is that while they’ll both eventually use each other’s behavior against them, they really are friends. The weird trust the two build in their short honeymoon phase is enough for Emily to leave Stephanie with one of the most important things in her world: her son, Nicky. After claiming a work emergency and pointing out that her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), is in London tending to his mother, Emily asks that Stephanie collect her son from school. She then disappears for a week.
Several mysteries unfold after the disappearance of Emily Nelson. The question of where she went seems to be answered quickly once she turns up dead, but Stephanie uncovers a few tidbits about her life before Em’s body is dredged up from the lake. This inspires her to keep digging into the disappearance well after she and Emily’s husband start shacking up together at her funeral. Emily might be the more apparent asshole in A Simple Favor’s narrative, but damn Stephanie!
Emily Nelson, aka Claudia, aka Hope McLanden is a child of a broken household. She and her sister, Faith, escaped their abusive home at sixteen. After killing their father and burning down half of the mansion, the two part ways to avoid capture by the police. Hope became Claudia, and then eventually Emily. She led a fiercely successful life and took no bullshit from anyone. Faith, on the other hand, found herself lost in heroin addiction. When she ran out of money, she elected to blackmail her twin. While the mistake turned out to be a lethal one for Faith, it did help Emily kick off a four-million-dollar scheme to get out of a job that she hated and secure a future where she would be able to spend time with her son.
What she didn’t count on is just how good Stephanie would be at solving mysteries, or how pissed she would be that her husband immediately starting banging her best friend. Emily plays games for a bit, but eventually reveals herself to her friend over cocktails at her own grave. The sister-killer greets the brother-fucker, and the two hatch a plan to get back at their wishy-washy lover who admitted he never loved Stephanie not a day before the women’s reunion. There's a clear line between which of this woman in the protagonist vs antagonist, but the film does an exceptional job making both of the characters stand out against one another. Even in her worst moment, you want to root for Emily, and at her most naive, you still want Stephanie to be happy.
While they both wanted revenge after being slighted, the two hold no illusions about the future of their friendship. Emily’s motivations might have been rooted in her love for her son, but she can’t let go of the fact that her best friend slept with her husband. Meanwhile, Stephanie just wants the truth to come out. This leads to sweet little Stephanie plotting with both sides of the handsome couple, telling Emily that they’ll work together to get Sean thrown in jail, and telling Sean that they’ll get her to confess to murder if she pretends to shoot him jealous lover style.
Emily sees right through it, but makes the mistake of underestimating her mommy blogger best friend once again. Not only is her confession live-streamed after she believes she’s bested the two of them, she’s hit by the car of another school mom who had caught the beginning of that week’s episode and became worried for Stephanie’s safety.
It’s off to prison for Emily, while Sean, Nicky, Stephanie and Miles all live very happy, very separate lives. In the end, all the two best friends of A Simple Favor wanted was to love their sons and to maybe not feel so alone in their respective situations. Each learned from one another, though Stephanie probably put the lessons she learned from Emily to a little more use. All the same, maybe be wary of the signs after someone tells you that you don’t want to be friends with them.