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Dealing with death, especially from cancer, has been source for any number of films, reflecting on the impact the condition has not only on the one facing death but for those who love them. With Other People, the film centers on the son of a woman in battle, and while she is always at the heart of the story, life goes on and not always the way expected in this emotionally-driven, honest film.
David (Jesse Plemons) is a young man on a precarious edge. He’s a gay man trying to be a television comedy writer who has one failed pilot but maintains aspirations. He has come back to Sacramento from New York when the family comes together to care for Joanne (Molly Shannon), David’s mother, in her final months. While he’s long been detached from the family, especially after he came out, he is devoted to them and commits to staying in the house, even though his father (Bradley Whitford) won’t talk about his homosexuality, and his sisters seem disinterested in his real life.
Meanwhile, David’s long-term relationship with Paul (Zach Woods) has ended, though in varying states of closure, but he doesn’t share that with his family, even as it seeps like poison into his every day life. He tries to keep a brave face, but slowly believes his own life is crumbling. The family, now forced to be together, stumbles along the fragile lines of civility, compassion, and tolerance, as the end for Joanne approaches and new directions lie ahead.
Written and directed by Chris Kelly, a Saturday Night Live writer, and based on his own mother’s death, Other People is a film about connections, tenuous or not, and relies on the uncomfortable moments in real life to harvest some genuine emotional swings. This is clearly a personal journey for Kelly, and he infuses it with a humor that colors the drama well, never dipping too far into either, though this is an uncommonly grounded experiences that refuses to bend to expectation. David is adrift in a world of colliding absolutes, seeking some semblance of identity and worth in a time when neither seem in reach.
Plemons steps into the leading man role well, acting as the fulcrum for the remaining cast, who all lift the production to unexpected levels. He has a natural presence that make it easy to get behind, and works the part with a gripping sense of authenticity, from the minor ticks of tugging at his hair to the way he watches from the peripheral as things spiral.
Shannon however, is the true heart of the film, and delivers Joanne with wonderful grace, humor and vulnerability. So affecting, she is at times heartbreaking, but also inspiring as she struggles to keep her dignity while allowing herself to expose the frailties of a person in demise. Whitford is also very strong, never a cliché as a father in denial of his son while coping with the loss of his wife. And veteran Paul Dooley, as David’s grandfather, is a wonder in every scene.
The film begins with a definitive answer that most movies in the genre purposefully leave ambiguous until the end, and because it does, gives it a certain freedom in relieving us of the question and getting us more focused on the journey. It’s an intelligent, touching, and even funny moment that sets a tone for the story that it never once falters from. Other People is a hard movie to watch at times, but it is also a seriously refreshing take that is never manipulative. This is one you should most certainly watch.
Director: Chris Kelly
Writer: Chris Kelly
Stars: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford