Rating in Stars: **** (out of ****)
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty
Director: Chris Kelly
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 09/09/16 (limited)
Its almost clinical mastery of tone is captured in the opening sequence of Other People, in which the mother of a family of five has, just seconds previous, succumbed to the human curse known as cancer. Her husband, son, and daughters are sprawled across her body, weeping openly for the loss they have just suffered, and then the phone rings. No one, of course, answers it, just as no one would capture this moment with a camera, because courtesy dictates the death must be treated with respect, but it does eventually go to voicemail. The caller is a friend, just checking in after years of not having heard from the woman now lifeless in bed, until the call is interrupted by a menial drive-thru transaction. I’m sorry, says the friend, for the inconvenience of hearing that interaction.
Director Chris Kelly’s screenplay hypothesizes a lot, both good and unintentionally humorous, about human nature in that opening sequence, and he spends the remainder of the film’s 97 minutes, which rewind to the makeshift beginning of the story, confirming those hypotheses. This is a film about the kind of good in people that is inherent, that is not always apparent on the surface, and that is shared by everyone (and anyone) who has had this shared experience. Losing a parent is a universal occurrence, except that for David (Jesse Plemons) it comes as just one awful thing about the awful year he’s been having.
He’s a comedy writer on staff for Saturday Night Live (an autobiographical element of Kelly’s life that makes one wonder what else might have been borrowed for the purpose of this drama), but he’s also been trying to sell a pilot spec script for a comedy program that will be shown on one of the big, prime-time channels. That thread resolves itself in exactly the way one might expect from the news that this is shaping up to be the worst year of his life. Not only that, but he and his ex-boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) have called it quits, with David’s part of the lease on their apartment about to end. Some resentment about David’s close-knit, traditional father Norman’s (Bradley Whitford) inability to accept David’s sexuality and choice of partner seems to have led to this.
And then David’s mother and Norman’s wife, Joanne (Molly Shannon) announces her illness, which is an inoperable cancer. Focus shifts onto David’s attempt to help his only major support system before the inevitable. Plemons is terrific as David, never offering an affectation of a queer individual or becoming anything less than completely authentic in his portrayal of a man under the heaviest strain, and Whitford, in the film’s trickiest role, must build a portrait of a confused man intimidated by his wife’s condition and his son’s “lifestyle” until a particularly heated exchange levels the playing field. Kelly’s screenplay has compassion for both men, refusing to make Norman a broad caricature as thoroughly as Whitford does.
Shannon is heartbreaking as Joanne, a woman who successfully puts on an air of strength she musters from her very intestines, even as she loses her hair and voice. The most painful scene here is a PTA meeting in which she must either use another person to speak louder than she can, the woman’s sense of dignity evaporating all the slower as the exchange goes on and then moves to the outside. Shannon is at the film’s aching but beating heart. This is a phenomenal film about family, about the strength of the bond within that family, and about the understanding that, through thick and thin, blood is blood. It is a great film.