Sundance Film Festival
Chris Kelly’s “Other People” was the first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Had it also been the only film I saw, I think I could have left Park City feeling wholly satisfied.
This personal, deeply felt tale about a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons’ David) who comes home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon’s Joanne) contains everything people have come to expect from a quote-unquote “Sundance movie.” It’s a dramedy with real heart, surprising performances from a vast ensemble and a little something to say about the constant battle to claim one’s identity. David, an openly gay twenty-something who still has yet to receive approval from his stern father (Bradley Whitford’s Norman), marks a refreshing change of representation. He’s allowed to be defined by something other than his sexuality without denying him romance.
But “Other People” goes beyond delivering the expected. It reminds you why we love these kinds of movies to begin with, why we’re willing to sit through countless half-baked similar films to get one this moving.
You will marvel at how much the people in this film bear a resemblance to someone in your own life. You will feel that you lived a year with this bereaved family, not just watched scenes about them for under 100 minutes. And shockingly, you will come to like – and probably cry to – Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Not just during the movie, either. Let’s just say you heard it at the gym. It might make you emotional there. (What, who? Me? Was that me?)
Oh, and you will weep. GOSH, did I weep during the screening. The crowd at the post-show Q&A I attended essentially posed no questions. It just featured people who tearfully ran through stories of their own tragic losses and how “Other People” resonated with them. Had I been able to gain composure amidst the veritable lake of tears surrounding my chair, I likely would have done the same.
I saw the film just days after losing a friend my own age – just 23 – to the same kind of cancer that afflicts Joanne. I remained stoic in the days following her passing, almost in disbelief that she just wasn’t here anymore. “Other People” played a crucial, cathartic role in helping me finally feel what happened. The film gave me a space in which I could work through the conflicting sets of emotions and make sense of what seems so unfair and yet so inevitable. While I could write impersonally about Kelly’s work and describe some kind of generalized viewer, it does a disservice to experiencing the film. This affected me because these tragedies affect us.
Once I muster up the courage (and stockpile the tissues) to watch the film again, I feel confident that “Other People” will stand on its own merits beyond the specifics of that one viewing. Kelly has a real knack for understanding the intersection of the tragic and the comedic, the absurd and the hyperreal, human exuberance and exasperation. Whether it’s the family fielding a well-meaning sympathy call from a friend also busy ordering a bean and cheese burrito in the drive-thru line or just a clever audio cut that transitions New Year’s Eve horn-blowing into vigorous toilet vomiting, he captures the swings that come to define our lives with painful accuracy.
And if anyone was expecting broad performances from the future “Saturday Night Live” head writer (and mind behind the notorious Adele Thanksgiving sketch), they should look elsewhere as Kelly draws remarkably assured and quietly forceful work from stars Plemons and Shannon. Each has a set of small mannerisms that come to define their character: Plemons’ David tends to bite his nails when feeling particularly nervous, while the voice level of Shannon’s Joanne quietly diminishes in capacity with each scene.
Neither goes on much of a “character journey,” so to speak, and that serves to enhance the reality of the film. The title of “Other People” refers to a line spoken by David about family tragedy; to him, the events of his life are “like something that happens to other people.” A friend, John Early’s Gabe, astutely points out that he is now other people to other people. Chris Kelly, in his capacity as writer and director, achieves something similar to that retort in his film by collapsing other people into just us. A- /