“You just never know what’s gonna happen in this life.”
When it comes to death you always hear the phrase, “the end is just the beginning.” The words may come from a place of faith, or reassurance, or simply out of respect. Other People is the embodiment of that oft-used quote. We start with the climax; a family huddled around a bed, hands held together, tears audible. “She’s gone…she’s gone.” A mother and a wife becomes another victim to The Big C. Then the phone rings and goes to voicemail. It’s an old friend checking up to see how things are, absent-mindedly talking about bean burritos while a family listens and mourns. I don’t think I’ve witnessed a better scene so far this year, and the start of Other People – a rare film that makes you cry from drama and from laughter – sets up a story that’ll stick with you until death do you part.
That paragraph might read as one big spoiler. And in a way it is, because the movie wants to introduce us to these people first and then explain how it is that they got there. What emotions they went through, the lives they’ve lived, how they have changed. So let’s rewind real quick. David (Jesse Plemons) is a 29 year-old writer living in New York, returning home to Sacramento to be with his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) while she battles a rare form of cancer. He doesn’t connect with his sisters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty). His dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is still uncomfortable with David being gay even after 10 years out. A recent split from boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) makes the cross-country trip a timely getaway.
David’s our main character even though he isn’t our most interesting persona. He’s relatable though, entirely because of Plemons’ fantastic performance, so we invest in his problems in order to enter the story. It’s in this space – his stressed and congested head – that the rest of the cast becomes visible and knowable. Relationships and family dynamics change, private conversations are held in public to create tension, things don’t always go right. That’s what I loved about this tender, gentle film. We get to see people at their worst and at their best. The entire spectrum from torn down to rebuilt. Scenes of real anguish are followed by genuine laughs, not because it is insensitive to the numerous issues at hand, but because that’s the means of catharsis through which it chooses to cope. Life can be funny and sad and a bizarre mix of the two in the same breath. Other People might force some issues but still observes and understands the complexity of feeling.
In last year’s big Sundance breakout Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Molly Shannon played the mother to a sick daughter. Here the tables are turned, and I’m a little blown away by her dramatic range. She still makes us laugh because funny people are able to do so. It’s a difficult task to harness that level of vivacity, but Shannon does so with measured control as Joanne reluctantly accepts her fate. At one point she lies in bed with David as he suggests a kind of bucket-list exploration and world travels. Joanne looks at her son – really seeing into him – and says, “I get to see my whole world at dinner tonight.” The line is profound, followed of course by her letting out an accidental fart. Little moments like this one are what put Other People in a different class from most dramatic comedies.
The film is inspired by writer/director Chris Kelly’s own experiences losing his mother to cancer in 2009. What should be another clumsy story about a young writer handling grief and crisis transcends tropes and clichés through nuance. Kelly undeniably poured himself into the movie with care and committed passion. Cancer has affected all of us in one way or another, and the new filmmaker makes this a universal tale of loss and growth without being personal to the point of becoming impersonal. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in this story. For example, a few quick overhead shots at different times show David and Joanne walking through a park. At first she’s fine. Next visit she runs a bit. The last requires a sit down. Seasons change, as does the background. Houses are constructed, a mother plays with her child near them. Other People assures us that life goes on even when one ends, and that when a person is lost, they can be found in the eyes and the hearts of those they affected. Per the title, we are other people, and they are us.
“It’s so funny in retrospect.”
Rating: 4 out of 5