Director: Chris Kelly
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, Zach Woods, John Early, June Squibb, Paul Dooley
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 9/9/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 9, 2016
Other People is so oddly unfocused that it's tempting to call that characteristic a function of the narrative and not a flaw with it. In its most effective moments, this is a movie that possesses an intimate understanding of the circumstances of caring for someone with a critical illness. Surely, then, there must be a reason that the story veers away from that subject on a seeming whim and mostly ignores the characters who turn out to be central to the movie's final lesson. Surely there's a reason for the lengthy dance number performed by an eccentric child in the middle of this story about a man coping with the realization that he can't cope with the idea of his mother dying.
If there is a point to such scenes beyond an easy gag (the dance scene, for example) or a way to add complications to an already complicated situation (scenes involving the protagonist's romantic problems), it might just be the existence of a distraction. Any distraction for David (Jesse Plemons), a New York writer, could be a welcome one, really. After all, he has returned to his childhood home in Sacramento to help care for his ailing mother.
The world offers plenty of interruptions, whether one is looking for them or not—and even if one wants them or not. This is one of the many, often unacknowledged cruelties of disease: that life continues mostly unaffected by the pain and suffering that the disease directly and indirectly causes. It seems as if the world should stop, but it doesn't.
Writer/director Chris Kelly's debut feature sums it up in a scene between David and an old friend named Gabe (John Early). David says that the entire experience in the first few months of dealing with his mother's cancer is surreal. It's something that happens to other people. Gabe responds, "Now, you're other people." It's not just an acknowledgment of the unreal feeling. It's pointing out that no one else knows what David is experiencing. They have their lives, and he has his. Those perceptions of the world are irreconcilable.
That sense of isolation, even among other people, is the movie's most potent thematic thread. The repeated motif is of David, his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), or the two of them together in scenes that should be normal or even pleasant. At some point, though, the cloud of harsh reality puts a shadow over an ordinary conversation.
The thread begins at the start of the movie, which happens to be the end of the story. As David and his family share a private moment of turmoil, the phone rings, and a long and rambling message from one of Joanne's friends goes from expressing sympathy for her to ordering food at a drive-through window.
Someone David knew in high school, with whom he hasn't spoken in years, thinks David's problems still have to do with his coming out as gay nine years ago. Once David tells him that Joanne has cancer, the guy has no clue how to respond. His idea of help—offering a free movie from a DVD rental box—simultaneously is touching and woefully misguided. When Joanne returns to the school where she taught for decades, she is too physically weak to tell a story about a favorite student. Shannon's performance here perfectly encapsulates the way that even the strongest, most good-humored person can be so completely diminished in body and spirit by illness.
David's professional and love-life struggles take the movie down a series of tangents that may distract him from his mother's illness (while featuring and creating problems of their own), but they mainly end up distracting from the core of the story. David and his long-term boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) have ended their relationship. On a brief visit back to New York, his ex suggests that David should try dating other people. This leads to the dancing kid—somehow—and a date scene that could play as comedy or heartbreak, if not for how forcibly awkward it turns.
Of more pressing concern is the way his family reacts to his work and his sexuality. There's a repeated suggestion that David's sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) think their older brother is using his work as a way to separate himself from his responsibilities as a caretaker. His father Norman (Bradley Whitford) still hasn't accepted that his son is gay, refusing to even speak the name of the man David had been dating for years. For his part, David doesn't mention the break-up, partially to keep his mother happy but also as a way to press his dad into maybe, finally acknowledging the truth.
Kelly eventually leads these characters toward the inevitable, and the frankness with which he handles scenes involving end-of-life decisions, fear in the face of death, and the desire to find meaning in any of this mess is admirable. He's also, though, taking us down a path that frames this experience as one that is uplifting, edging on the border of sappiness. The ultimate answer has to do with family, and if Other People starts to slip into mawkishness, it's primarily because the movie doesn't quite earn that final resolution. It's too busy finding distractions at the cost of the people and things that, by its own central argument, really matter.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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