Other People’s quiet power is sneaky.
Sometimes a film doesn’t need to be anything more than the sum of its equally solid parts. Other People, the directorial debut of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, is that kind of film. Its simple plot won’t win any points for originality, but you’ll laugh when you’re supposed to laugh and cry when you’re supposed to cry. The structure is familiar, unfolding month-by-month over a year, but because of the swift runtime and an abundance of memorable characters, it doesn’t get tedious. The most extraordinary thing about Other People is the quality of the performances from its excellent cast, but all are delivered subtly. It’s just good.
The film begins at the end, with Joanne (played brilliantly by a never-better Molly Shannon) dying of cancer, at home and in-bed, surrounded by her husband Norman (“The West Wing”’s Bradley Whitford), son David (Jesse Plemons of television’s “Fargo”), and daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebecah (Madisen Beatty). It’s a terribly sad scene, but Kelly quickly sets the film’s style of going for laughs in the most devastating of scenarios by interrupting their mourning wails with the buzz of their answering machine. It’s an old friend of Joanne’s, calling while in line at Taco Bell to offer Joanne sympathy as she has only just heard about her cancer. The friend stays on the line as she orders her burritos, the family’s sniffles set against the sound of her choosing burritos and arguing over whether she gets Coke or Pepsi.
From there, Other People bounces back 12 months to the previous New Year’s Eve. Comedy writer David has just arrived home to Sacramento from New York City to help take care of the recently diagnosed Joanne. It’s quickly established that David is basically estranged from most of his family. He doesn’t know anything about his sisters or their friends, he rejects his father’s attempts at conversation and he can’t even connect with his delightful grandparents, played by national treasures June Squibb and Paul Dooley. Then he finds his way upstairs to his parents’ room, where Joanne is taking forever to get ready, and his deep bond with his vibrant, warm mother is instantly evident. Plemons and Shannon do an incredible job of immediately and subtly showing David and Joanne’s connection.
As expected, the film unfolds along the timeline of Joanne’s yearlong descent into cancer, but instead of following Joanne, Kelly takes us along with David as he explores his hometown and reflects on his life. Though he’s lying to his mother about it, he has recently broken up with his boyfriend Paul and his job is going nowhere. In these scenes, Other People reveals itself to be a melancholy investigation into the life of the older millennial. David is of a generation where online dating is a little bit embarrassing, parents don’t need to be okay with their kids’ sexuality and success means moving to the big city. He connects with an old friend, the comfortably gay Gabe (a marvelous John Early), and Gabe’s pre-teen, even-more-comfortably-gay brother Justin (a sensational J.J. Totah, who nearly steals the movie), who inform him that the world has changed. Throughout this journey, Plemons is pitch-perfect as someone who doesn’t fit in where he’s from or where he’s ended up.
Though the camera mostly follows David, Joanne’s cancer looms large. And though there are a couple of the expected scenes set in hospitals and churches, Kelly mostly subverts expectations when it comes to portraying Joanne’s illness. Scenes that are supposed to be warm and sad are instead awkwardly, terribly funny while still occasionally wringing out the tears.
The performances are all wonderful, particularly Shannon, who manages to portray weakness and strength simultaneously as she fights to make sure her family doesn’t break apart once she’s gone. Whitford is great, also, playing against type as a conservative, quiet father and husband who can’t seem to get it right. Retta, D’Arcy Carden and Nicole Byler all pop up in small but memorable roles, and “The Office”’s Zach Woods is fantastic as David’s ex-boyfriend, Paul. And Plemons ably carries the film despite having very few “showy” scenes.
Other People’s quiet power is sneaky. What seems like a well-acted assortment of related scenes weave together to create a beautiful, subtle and simple film. A marijuana-assisted chat about birch trees leads the way for an emotional catharsis for David late in the film. An over-the-top bit player is introduced early on only to appear later for a shocking dance number that will rate alongside Little Miss Sunshine’s as one of the best and weirdest ever. And that devastating opening scene appears again at the end, and even though it’s already been onscreen it feels like a surprise, like a loss, and that’s because along the way we’ve come to love the characters so much.