Other People

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"Cancer?!"

There’s a tendency among first-time filmmakers to assume that being autobiographical makes a movie unique, even when it addresses subjects and situations that have been covered a thousand times before. You can see the logic. Sure, indie films about a slightly directionless young man returning to his hometown to deal with family strife are a dime a dozen. But mine is different: it’s based on the time that I returned to MY hometown to deal with MY family!

“Other People,” from “SNL” writer Chris Kelly, is packed with so many Sundance-friendly tropes that you’d think there was a mixup at the factory. It has a gay son, a disapproving dad, a mother with cancer, a return to a hometown that feels provincial after spending time in the big city, and patience-trying encounters with well-meaning but clueless relatives. On paper, it’s a little too familiar. In execution, it’s also a little too familiar, but Kelly’s direction is humble, and he captures some wonderful performances that convey the sincerity of his script. The whole thing works better than it should, even if it still might be better as therapy than as a movie.

Kelly’s avatar is David Mulcahy (Jesse Plemons), a gay comedy writer who has returned to Sacramento to be with his family as his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), dies of cancer. His father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), never accepted David’s sexuality and won’t even acknowledge that he has a long-term boyfriend (Zach Woods) back in New York. That relationship is ending, by the way, and David has just suffered a professional setback as well. He has one gay friend from childhood (John Early) who’s in Sacramento occasionally, but otherwise no support system to help him deal with his crumbling life.

These other details notwithstanding, the real focus of the movie is Joanne’s cancer and David’s reaction to it. After opening with her death, we jump back a year and follow the process month by month, occasionally with patches of morbid humor but largely in a serious vein. In fact, except for the opening sequence, in which Joanne’s death is immediately followed by a phone message from a hilariously oblivious well-wisher, the film’s comedy and drama are kept in separate compartments. Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon excel in both areas, though, with Shannon’s strong dramatic work especially worth noting, not least for its unexpectedness.

As played out dying parents are in movies, this one would be better if it had stuck to that, even if it meant omitting or changing certain elements that feel like they were included just because they’re autobiographical (I presume). David has two sisters who are present but don’t figure into the story, just filling out the background. Give ’em something to do, or cut ’em out! His gay friend has a little brother (J.J. Totah) who’s amusingly flamboyant but, again, unnecessary. Even major threads like David’s romantic woes and his issues with his dad, instead of supporting the main story, distract from it. What does Mom’s impending death have to do with Dad’s acceptance or David’s love life, other than that they all involve David? You keep waiting for it to tie together thematically, and it doesn’t.

And yet there are sublime stretches of quiet drama, some really lovely moments between Plemons and Shannon, and those periodic bits of welcome humor that carry the film along. One almost feels bad criticizing such a personal, heartfelt story, but hey, it’s one’s job. This is a good first film from a smart writer.

B- (1 hr., 33 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of profanity and sexual dialogue, a scene of strong sexuality.)

Originally published at Film School Rejects.