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'Other People': Sundance Review

Dir/scr: Chris Kelly. US. 2016. 96mins

A gay son returns home to care for his dying mother and confront his closed-minded father in Other People, a low-key comedy-drama that overcomes its story’s potential triteness with some fine-tuned performances and a commitment to small, true moments. Making his feature debut, writer-director Chris Kelly draws from personal experience, and it’s the specificity of the telling that gives Other People its quiet, offhand grace. Led by a strong, unfussy performance from Jesse Plemons, the whole ensemble lends the film a lived-in naturalness in order to inoculate the proceedings from clichéd melodrama.

Shannon does everything in miniature, crafting a portrait of dying which is moving because of how organic it feels

Opening the Sundance Film Festival, Other People doesn’t have a lot of star power, although supporting turns from Molly Shannon and Bradley Whitford may help raise the film’s visibility a little. Movies about characters fighting cancer are practically a genre unto themselves, and solid reviews should attract potential buyers. Commercial theatrical prospects would seem to be lukewarm, though, with VOD just as attractive a platform for this intimate tale.

Spanning about a year, Other People stars Plemons as David, a 29-year-old New York comedy writer who has moved back to Sacramento to be with his mom Joanne (Shannon) as she’s in the last stages of cancer. David, his two younger sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty) and his father Norman (Whitford) attend to Joanne, but there’s an unspoken tension within the family: Even though David has been out for almost a decade, Norman won’t acknowledge his son’s sexuality.

Kelly, who has served as a writer on Saturday Night Live and the Comedy Central sitcom Broad City, nicely captures David’s career and personal crossroads: The young man is in between jobs, and he and his boyfriend of five years (Zach Woods) have recently split up. Consequently, the trip back to Sacramento is even more painful than it would be otherwise, and he feels alone in a city that doesn’t seem very welcoming or cosmopolitan to a single gay man who  has been living in New York City.

Early on, Other People removes any suspense about Joanne’s fate: we see in the opening that she has just died, and the rest of the film is actually a flashback to the year David spent back at home with his family before her passing. That narrative choice drapes the movie in a gentle melancholy as we see how David adjusts to life at a slower pace in a family where he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable. (He and his mother adore each other, and he has a good rapport with his sisters, but we sense that Sacramento represents a place he escaped for bigger, better things.)

To be sure, there’s an unavoidable familiarity in Other People’s setup: We are presented with a coming-of-age story about a young man who must return home and face his past, with a dying mother to boot. Kelly can’t completely overcome some predictable plotting, but it’s to his credit that he mostly eschews big emotional scenes for modest observations about family, relationships, career, mortality and the ways that an annoyingly ubiquitous pop song can end up being the one thing that best articulates a precise emotion at just the right time. Small moment by small moment, Other People turns Kelly’s own experiences caring for his mother into something touchingly universal.

Plemons has done fine supporting work in films such as The Master and television dramas like Breaking Bad, often playing characters whose reserved manner makes the viewer wonder what they’re not saying. The actor wields this withdrawn tendency to fine effect in Other People: David has to hide elements of his New York life from his family — for instance, his writing career appears to be in free fall — and so Plemons plays him as a dutiful son and brother keeping up appearances so as not to upset anyone. David’s brave face, matched by the fact that he’s just a sweet and decent guy, makes the character deeply likable.

Shannon and Whitford are also quite good in roles that could easily be stereotypes. As Joanne, a once-vivacious woman now drained by her disease, Shannon does everything in miniature, crafting a portrait of dying which is moving because of how organic it feels. As for Whitford, he locates the humanity in a bigoted father who — in his mind, anyway — means well. (He just can’t fathom why David would choose to be gay, as if sexuality were a choice.) But even Norman is allowed to be multi-dimensional: Other People shows the depth of his love for his wife, even if he simultaneously stubbornly refuses to accept his son.

Production companies: Park Pictures, Gettin’ Rad Productions

International sales: WME, dmcintosh@wmeentertainment.com

Producers: Adam Scott, Naomi Scott, Sam Bisbee                  

Executive producers: Lance Acord, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Cathleen Ihasz, Nicole Ihasz, David Ryan, Hunter Ryan, Richard J. Bosner, Stephanie Apt                  

Cinematography: Brian Burgoyne                             

Production design: Tracy Dishman                                         

Editor: Patrick Colman                                         

Music: Julian Wass

Main Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, John Early, Zach Woods, Paul Dooley, June Squibb

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