Other People (2016, dir. Chris Kelly)
John David is back at his childhood home in Sacramento under heavy circumstances. His mother, Joanne has a severe form of cancer to treat, and the family is coming to terms with the fact that she will not last much longer. David had a falling out with the family in college when he came out as gay and that history resonates now. He feels awkward and out of place with his sisters and father. He does bond deeply with his mother though, and their story is the crux of the film.
Other People is the writing-directing debut of Chris Kelly, a former Saturday Night Live writer who bases the film on his own life and experiences with his late mother. I was admittedly a little trepidatious when starting this movie. The loved one dying of cancer trope has been mined pretty deep by Hollywood for decades, and the results usually feel like emotionally manipulative tripe. The disease is often a lazy way to quickly get the audience to feel for characters without actually building the relationships between the characters on screen. Kelly successfully avoids this and ends up with a beautiful character-focused film, carried firmly on the shoulders of Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons.
I have never been quite a fan of Molly Shannon’s work on Saturday Night Live. Her style of hyper-maniac, emotionally awkward acting in that venue never clicked with me. Since then though, I have found her film work to be amazing. Her collaborations with Mike White (Year of the Dog, HBO’s Happiness) have been my favorite and it’s because she works so well with White. Other People reveals a new potential fruitful partnership because she arguably gives her best performance to date. Shannon’s sense of humor is present and meshes with the real world around her. She’s not over the top or larger than life. She plays Joanne like a real mother would be, hiding the worst of her illness at times and others allowing herself to vent, only later to feel a bit guilty. The journey she takes Joanne through is remarkable and the inevitable death scene is never played for cheap tears. It’s done off screen and we only see the family seconds after she has passed.
Jesse Plemons is another actor whom I have felt fairly neutral about. I didn’t watch much of Friday Night Lights but saw him in Breaking Bad, The Master, and a few other roles. I’d never actually seen him take a leading spot so I wasn’t quite sure how he would do in Other People. He ends up being quite captivating. The character of David is written so that he’s not an infallible protagonist. He’s often quite selfish and unthinking of anyone outside himself and his own neuroses. There’s definite justification for his hostility towards his father, but the film never just gives him full allowance to be an asshole without consequences. The resolution between he and his father isn’t neat and tidy, lots of questions still hang out there. Once again, like with Joanne’s portrayal, this feels incredibly true to life. Those deep cuts don’t ever get fully healed and family typically either splits or learns to adapt around them. The supporting cast of the film is one of those that you dream of. Lots of improv actors, faces from Saturday Night Live, and great character actors. Paul Dooley, Bradley Whitford, John Early, Matt Walsh, Paula Pell, Retta, Lennon Parham, Zach Woods and more.
Other People is a very well done family drama that exceeds the bar set by our last few illness-based comedy-dramas. It’s characters feel true to life, and they are allowed to breathe and develop so that the death of Joanne feels like it has consequence. You will likely tear up or cry, but the film earns those tears.