RELEASE DATE: September 9, 2016
DIRECTOR: Chris Kelly
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 97 minutes
If you’ve been around long enough, you have inevitably been in a stressful, overwhelming situation. And at some point you realize that your prior belief in regards to such stressful, overwhelming situations – that this kind of scenario, whatever it may be, only happens to “other people” – is undeniably false. Bad things happen to everyone, and you and your loved ones are no exception. It’s a hard truth, but it’s one everybody picks up on sooner or later.
Chris Kelly’s Other People is based off this reality, and takes its title from a scene in which this very phenomenon is discussed. The movie is told from the perspective of David (Jesse Plemons), an openly gay comedian in New York City who writes for Saturday Night Live. His attempts to sell a pilot to the networks have consistently fallen through. He is disappointed yet ready to keep trying, but his career has to take a backseat to a crisis in his personal life – his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a rare type that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, so the condition has become terminal.
David flies home to spend time with his parents and his two sisters. In the process of moving back to his folks’ house for a few months, he must come to terms with not only his mother’s mortality, but also some otherwise-ignored conflicts in his family.
Most glaringly, his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) has categorically refused to accept the fact that David is gay and can’t even bring himself to utter the name of his son’s partner, Paul (Zach Woods). Memories will be revisited, ideologies addressed and differences re-evaluated. They have to be. There’s no more room to hide. This family will need each other more than ever soon – as Joanne’s health starts to decline, a difficult new normal is quickly approaching.
Kelly has been largely forthright with the autobiographical nature of Other People’s script. There are particular observations that can only be realized through personal experienced – one reference tracks David’s inability to figure out how to answer the otherwise generic question of “How are you?” The film slowly ropes in its cavalcade of ideas, and its setting over the course of nearly a year gives Kelly an opportunity to cover the process of impending loss from multiple angles.
But the movie suffers from a handful of issues all the same. There’s a recurring piece of music throughout the movie, an unofficial anthem of Other People. I won’t name it because its last appearance is pivotal to the final scene of the film, and I feel that would constitute a spoiler. It’s a song that has been a maligned radio staple since its release 15 years ago, and it appears in the movie nearly a half-dozen times, with David growing more and more frustrated over hearing it any time he hears it on a car radio or in a supermarket.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular song, or one like it, was taken straight from Kelly’s memory. Yet its presence feels rather forced, and its ubiquity begins to lack realism after a while. And that finale, while involving the composition heavily, didn’t absolutely need to have it. This is representative of a larger narrative problem within Other People. Comedic subplots are introduced, toyed with, and thrown away after a scene or two. There’s never a sense of fluid, dynamic storytelling.
Yet Other People is solidly anchored by two great performances. One of them is from Molly Shannon, who seamlessly executes a compelling and rich dramatic performance. Shannon is able to make us love Joanne instantaneously. She’s a devoted second-grade teacher and a loving mother and wife. The deterioration of her physical state comes slowly yet invariably, and as she loves her capabilities to speak and move around on her own, her frustrations and anger become palpable in the same natural progression.
The other noteworthy performance is from Jesse Plemons. He shows a degree of knowledgeable restraint as David, a character slowly accepting the painful reality before him. Plemons is able to succinctly depict how his character juggles the road he’s on as well as the difficulties he will face afterward. It’s a thoughtful, complex display of acting, and his scenes with Shannon show a degree of genuine chemistry.
Other characters are less developed. Bradley Whitford’s Norman, for example, is never evaluated in detail and is saddled with clunky, inane dialogue, especially when it comes to discussions about his son’s sexuality. It’s not his denial that is unrealistic – sadly, that’s all too common among many parents and relatives of LGBT people. It’s the inarticulate way that it’s expressed through an otherwise articulate screenplay. (There’s a line in which he abruptly calls David’s coming out, which occurred 10 years before the events of the movie, as a continuing “debate.”)
Nevertheless, Other People works very well when focused on the relationship between its two main characters. While the quality of the film wavers when venturing too far beyond this core dynamic, Kelly’s feature debut is stacked with enough therapeutic honesty to keep an emotional fire always burning. The movie doesn’t dig deep enough to deliver in a particularly groundbreaking way, but it has a sense of endearing feeling and underlying wit that is hard to deny.