Other People, which was received warmly and enthusiastically at Sundance earlier this year, was sold to Netflix out of the film festival and largely bypassed theaters (it received a token theatrical release in October). I can see why. It’s a great movie, but it’s not easy to market a seriocomedy about a gay, aspiring television writer who returns home to take care of his mom as she slowly dies of cancer. It doesn’t sound like a crowd-pleaser, and it’s not! But it’s funny in parts — very much so — and heartbreaking in others, but it never once feels depressing or hard to watch.
Other People is a semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Chris Kelly, one of the head writers of Saturday Night Live and a writer/consultant on Broad City. Kelly says it’s “semi-autobiographical,” but what makes Other People so exceptional is that it feels genuine instead of a movie where someone’s experiences are molded into a three-act formula. Reality also means capturing some of the banality of living with someone who is dying, and there’s a lot of that here, but even then, Kelly mixes humor with poignancy.
To wit: The opening scene sees David (Jesse Plemons) lying on the bed with his dead mother (Molly Shanon), his grieving father (Bradley Whitford) and two sisters, quietly crying over their mother’s body. The phone rings and a woman leaves an obnoxious message while she’s going through a fast-food drive-in window, and everyone in the room is forced to endure it while consoling one another over their loss. That’s the kind of absurd detail that can only come from real life.
The movie then takes us back and covers David’s year at home with his Mom. His boyfriend had broken up with him, but he doesn’t want to tell his Mom because he wants her to think he’s happy. His career is in shambles, and his father is an asshole. But he’s not an asshole in the cinematic sense. He’s an asshole in the way many real-life Dads are assholes: He’s a good husband. He’s even a decent Dad, but he refuses to acknowledge that his son his gay, and hasn’t in the decade since David came out. That is to say, he’s a good Dad only when it suits him and when it doesn’t, he turns his back.
Chris Kelly also avoids the pitfalls of making his semi-autobiographical narrator the angelic hero of the story. David is kind of a jerk sometimes, too, especially to his younger sisters, with whom he too often shadows their grief with his own, which feels like something an aspiring writer might do.
Plemons is good and again, he doesn’t feel like a movie character here. He feels like someone you’d run into at the supermarket — awkward, tortured, uncomfortable in his own skin. He also pulls off something you almost never see in an actor, and I don’t exactly know how to describe it except to say that you know he’s gay long before he ever mentions it, even though he never relies on stereotypes to convey it. It’s one of the more remarkably natural performance of the year.
It’s Molly Shannon, however, who steals the show as the dying mom whose light never seems to dim, even in her darkest hours. She’s incredible. In fact, while Other People never feels bleak, Shannon’s depiction is so honest and real that it’s hard not to escape the thought throughout the film that this must be what it feels like to lose a loved one to cancer. It’s not a hugely dramatic ordeal. It is not peppered with epiphanies. Impending death does not stop the world. The trains don’t stop running. People don’t stop calling. Life’s trivialities still preoccupy most of our time, even if our heads are somewhere else. We hang on until we can’t anymore, and then we try to let go and hopefully take something positive from the life.
It’s a terrific film, and while it may sound heavy and painful, I found it to be a bittersweet but strangely comforting and relatable experience.