A touching, emotional drama, Other People might try to do too much, but that is more than made up for by some ridiculously good performances from the cast.
A moving family drama at heart, Other People makes a commendable effort to include a variety of themes, genres, and ideas. From sharp black humour, through to exploration of LGBT identity, to the idea of home and the crushing weight of expectations being forever higher than reality. This breadth however, while interesting to consider from a distance, does hold the film back a little as you are watching. It trips up the main story and makes the whole thing feel, at times, a lot longer than its hour-and-a-half runtime.
The film follows David (Jesse Plemons), a struggling comedy writer who moves back to his home-town to be with his dying mother (Molly Shannon). There, David has to deal with his conservative father (Bradley Whitford) who resents David’s homosexuality, as well as trying and failing to maintain the illusion that he has his life together.
Featuring an impressive cast – Plemons (Breaking Bad, Black Mass) and Shannon (SNL) are joined by The West Wing star Bradley Whitford, Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods, and veteran actress June Squibb. It stands to reason that Other People would be, at the very least, a very well-acted film. And it certainly is. The supporting cast, firstly, are superb. Woods gives a solid turn as David’s ex-boyfriend; taking a much more serious, nuanced role than he has in Silicon Valley in his stride. Comedian John Early similarly does well as David’s childhood-friend, providing a seamless mixing of some of the film’s lighter comedic moments with its more serious dramatic ones. Bradley Whitford’s performance is excellent – creating a character who can, in the very same scene, go from despicable to touching and empathetic.
As good as the supporting actors are, none of them hold a candle to the film’s leads. Plemons and Shannon are incredible from start to finish; their performances anchoring the film’s copious amounts of drama and emotional manipulation. They stop it from being a hackneyed, cheap attempt at eliciting a tear-jerk type response: instead elevating it into a more considered, impactful level of storytelling. Shannon’s portrayal of a woman being utterly eviscerated by disease is reminiscent of Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning turn in Still Alice (2014), while Plemons flies through the film full-kilter, combining a brilliant of use of physicality with more traditional acting. He nails comedy, arrogance, pain, fear, and tenderness (basically all the emotions…and comedy: comedy isn’t an emotion).
Acting aside, Other People is a well-made debut for director Chris Kelly, moving through a long period of time (the film takes place over a year) at a largely impressive pace. There are a few moments though, where the story seems to stop dead for an entire scene – which brings us to the film’s one major problem. It’s too packed with ideas and potential storylines so that at first, we don’t know where to look. We don’t know which plotline is going to go on to become the main one: is it David’s interactions with his family, or his pursuit of a career/relationship? Once we know (it’s the family stuff), the other plotlines start to feel a little superfluous; things that have to be sat through until the important bits come back around. Being a comedy (or at least being billed as one), you’d expect that these less important scenes – narratively speaking – would be filled with jokes to keep our attention. While Kelly does do this on occasion (including a spectacular dance recital half-way through), the humour was spread too thinly throughout the film to really warrant such consistent narrative diversion.
Still, Other People is a spectacular film. It’ll make you laugh, and it’ll make you cry. Certainly it’s a film worth watching, which you’ll be able to do in the autumn as Netflix have picked up distribution rights and are planning on giving it a (deserved) Oscar push. It’s the kind of film that when it’s over, leaves you not wanting to move for just a little while as you try to process all the things that just happened. It’s the kind of film that’ll make you want to grab hold of your family and never let go.
Other People (2016), directed by Chris Kelly, featured at Sundance Film Festival London 2016.