David (Jesse Plemons) is having a rough year. He’s a comedy writer pushing 30 whose pilot wasn’t picked up. His boyfriend just dumped him. And now he’s moving home with his parents, to help take care of his mother (Molly Shannon) while she dies of cancer. These are setbacks that are supposed to befall other people, he confides in an old classmate who tells him, “Now you’re other people for other people.” It’s with this dazed adrift quality that David goes through the next several months, struggling to spend as much time with his mother as he can while figuring out a way to get his life back on track. Writer-director Chris Kelly, veteran of Saturday Night Live and Broad City, brings to Other People, his debut feature, a sharp sense of timing, stringing together incidents by turns lightly comic, gallows humor dark, and gravely serious. It’s funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, sometimes turning one to the other in an instant. Throughout David’s aimless frustrations, and the problems of a family facing the end of a love one, help anchor every moment with humane specificity. It’s cozy as a high-quality serious-minded sitcom, and as sharp as a frank, well-observed, deeply personal story.
This isn’t a cancer movie with cancer as its main interest, or a movie about a young gay man that takes his sexuality as its only characterization. It’s not hard to imagine a terrible version of this story playing out like a cloying, manipulative message movie. How wonderful, then, to find instead a movie sincerely felt and earnestly expressed. Questions of illness and identity are elements used to bring specificity to the character’s lives, considered as part of a whole. The movie is simply about people living their lives in all facets and all quotidian ups and downs, doing the best they can with what they’re given. Here’s a full, warm-hearted, clear-eyed, and compassionate movie about a young man preparing to lose his mother. And yet he feels lost in so many ways, futilely pecking away at spec scripts, ignoring his younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) and their emotional needs, maintaining tenuous connections with his ex (Zach Woods), and struggling with seeking the approval of his conservative father (Bradley Whitford), who ten years after his son’s coming out is still unwilling to discuss it.
As much a portrait of millennial quarter-life crisis and modern family dysfunction as it is a movie about losing a loved one, Kelly wisely situates David at a nexus of confusion. His dream career seems out of reach. He’s frustrated about moving back to his hometown. He’s suspicious of dating apps, but increasingly tired of the isolation of his location, and perceived failures. Even his one hookup is clumsy. He splits his time between hanging out with his old friend (John Early) and fulfilling his sense of duty to his mother. He holds her hair while she vomits from chemo, watches her sing in the church choir until she can’t anymore, goes for walks in the park, and sits and talks with her while she nods in and out of sleep. He’s looking for some revelation about life, but instead settles into the long, slow, painful rhythms of watching his mother fade away. Kelly has the scenario progress at an unhurried pace, moving from month to month, picking out illuminating scenarios – a last family trip; discussion of a living will and burial plans; bad dates; professional setbacks; a meltdown in a grocery store’s pharmacy section as the full implications finally hit in waves of confusion – knowing that though a mother is dying, the family’s life still must move on.
This all could be the stuff of Sundance-darling indie-film cliché, the journey of self-discovery through small-town shenanigans and/or fatal diagnoses. But what saves Other People and, indeed, makes it great is Kelly’s good sense of authentic detail, honest messiness, and a ring of truth. I liked its vision of suburban California as an endless horizon of subdivisions, strip malls, and chain stores haunted by the local FM station’s repetitive loop of “Drops of Jupiter.” You can see why this place seems so much smaller than David’s showbiz aspirations. And I loved the family interactions, which aren’t so much melodrama or real tragedy as simple disagreements, sublimated emotional expressions, and subtle miscommunications. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy told us. This one is strained, but the love shows, too. (It’s especially fun and poignant when the grandparents (Paul Dooley and June Squibb) show up with sweet elderly candor laced with the sadness of a couple losing their daughter.) Then there are the awkward encounters, like distant acquaintances who don’t know the news and approach with cheer, or the caring friends who don’t quite know the words to express the sadness and shock they feel.
So expertly judged, Kelly use each moment as evocative glimpses into a variety of evolving reactions to the mournful central issue as well as the daily grind of everything else, even as the end draws near. Simply framed crisp clear digital photography captures scenes with no fuss, effectively and efficiently. This allows us to focus on the great, natural, emotionally dexterous acting and deeply felt dynamics at play. The entire ensemble (enjoyable and moving every one) brings tremendous and true lived-in performances, but I must single out the leads for special mention. Plemons plays David as a man unsure of his movements, hesitant about when to open up and when to merely be strong and silent. He wants his mother’s final months to be happy, and doesn’t want to trouble her with his career and relationship worries. He wants to care for her. Shannon plays her with a fading light, bubbly and funny and full of personality that slowly drains, until she speaks in a whisper as she says her goodbyes, mothering to the end. Their final scene together is the culmination of their characters’ searches for the right words that’ll make them feel some form of solace, as well as the sort of goodbye people have when they can’t bring themselves to say it’s the last one.
Because the movie is so compassionate to every person, and completely aware of how funny life can be even, and maybe especially, during trying and difficult times, there’s a sense of well-rounded believability that serves to make the movie more effective than one of non-stop single-minded sadness. Without falling back on cheap sentimentality or easy tear-jerking, the movie’s final moments earn a wallop of an ending, a satisfying conclusion that’s not tidy, but tender, convincing, right, and overwhelmingly moving. The first line of “Drops of Jupiter” – played earlier for laughs of recognition, now having become unexpectedly melancholy – started me crying. Then a shot of eyes, imbued with such casually forceful symbolic import, immediately before the final cut to black insured I’d be sniffling through the entire end credits, with the feeling I’d just seen something powerfully relatable and genuine.