On the surface, Other People might seem like a film aimed at winning awards – it follows a young gay man’s return home to his homophobic and dying mother in order to help with her care. While Other People doesn’t entirely avoid the typical tropes of the cancer story or of the LBGT acceptance story, it plays with these motifs in a way that avoids over-sentimentality. Nor does it reach for any feelings that have not been wholly deserved.
In the feature directorial debut of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, the cast is littered with some elite talent from television and comedy circles. Fargo and Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons stars as David, a young gay comedy writer from New York who returns to Sacramento to be with his mother through her illness and death. He’s joined by Bradley Whitford who plays father Norm. Molly Shannon shines as his mother Joanne, with smaller parts from the likes of Paula Pell, Matt Walsh, Maude Apatow, Retta, Lennon Parham and the always delightful Zach Woods.
If the cast isn’t enough of an indicator, don’t be fooled by the subject matter – this is not a dark dramatic movie about death, it’s a typical dramedy. Yes, Kelly starts the movie with Joanne’s death before returning to the beginning of the last year of her life, but this is a movie about acceptance, about family and home, and throughout has spatterings of lighthearted comedic moments that help prevent the movie delving into pure depression fare, with a particularly great moment of an obscene and wildly inappropriate dance from a scantily clad ten-year old boy.
While Sacremento is hardly a small town, to David, his homecoming represents a return to small town values; he’s a cultured person amongst small-town folk – his mother his only kindred spirit. David is largely estranged from his younger sisters, and with his father’s refusal to acknowledge David’s sexuality, their relationship barely mimics a functional one. Despite these values, Whitford brings charm to the role – his love for Joanne is evident, and Norm feels like the dad of every high-school friend you ever had.
It’s this normality behind situations that are often emotionally heightened that creates the real heart of Other People. We touch on the typical moments of a cancer story, but they all feel real and understated, with not one emotion feeling contrived. It is self-aware, but not annoyingly so. The film’s title comes from one of David’s early lines in the film “this all just feels like something that happens to other people.” There are awkward family situations, joking about cremation, David’s grandparents wondering if Joanne’s tumours were instead parts of her twin that she had absorbed in the womb, amateur improv shows, family sing-alongs to a rather inspired piece of soundtrack (Train’s 2001 song ‘Drops of Jupiter’), and situations that feel so wonderfully mundane and familiar that it makes you feel like another character too. This set-up causes all the emotional moments to hit hard when they arrive – it is truly effective storytelling.
Other People technically is functional – it’s well shot without being the most beautifully composed film ever, and has no technical errors but no huge achievements either, other than the excellent combination of lighting and makeup to emphasis Joanne’s physical changes as her health declines. But these technical elements are peripheral to the true strength of the film – Kelly’s script and the excellent performances. Shannon almost feels robbed with the lack of award recognition, and both Plemons and Whitford could surely put their hands up too. In a year with some dubious choices, a film with such strong performances that are truly soul-wrenching might have been given a nod.