Other People (2016)
dir. Chris Kelly
written by: Chris Kelly
starring: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, John Early
3.5 out of 4 stars
It was difficult for me to anticipate the “revelatory acting” provided by Molly Shannon in Sundance-premiere Other People, the family drama from SNL writer Chris Kelly. Where I’ve always enjoyed the performances Molly Shannon delivers, I’ve never found her to have the dramatic weight to handle the cancer diagnosis. How is it she is supposed to tackle Cynthia Nixon level dismay in James White or Emma Thompson’s theatrical, third wall breaking brilliance in Wit? Answer is, Other People is neither of those movies. It is the most heartbreaking, hilarious cancer comedy I’ve ever seen–not a large genre, but a huge compliment to this movie.
This film begins with the end: David (Jesse Plemons) surrounds his mother Joanne’s (Molly Shannon) recently departed body with his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) and sisters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty). The family is inconsolable, reaching out to each other for comfort, even when the phone begins to ring. The tone is set for this dark, touching comedy as the family explores their growth during Joanne’s treatment and ultimate succumbing to her rare form of cancer. For a family uncomfortable and fractured, David’s year at home develops into an introspective comedy that tugs all the right strings.
Plemons handles lead duties with honest emotion. Heaps of responsibility and disappointment ravage his attempts to let his mother know he will be fine when she’s gone. Even amid the most trivial, all too realistic grocery store breakdown to reconnecting with the gay best friend who has already been through maternal departure, he finds himself blending into the scene effortlessly. Using a stellar John Early in some heartwrenchingly vital scenes, we see the “gay best friend” to the gay guy, and the platonic goodwill was very welcome. Plemons handles the bulk of the story with rare reservation. Not your typical gay lead, he allows himself to be flawed but never pitiable, hilarious but never clowning. He is a diverted young man, but in a way that is not millenial cliche. He’s tried to do what’s right, but is he complaining? Yes, but not in the obnoxious way you might fear.
Shattering all expectations, Molly Shannon’s performance is one that sneaks up on you. Chemotherapy poisoning destroys the body and leads to vomiting and untold uncomfortability, and Shannon pulls that off expectedly well. It’s difficult to accept the limitations of the physical form, but when Joanne decides to forgo treatment, her exploration of what her remaining days should holds develops some powerful moments. Her voice gone, her eyes sullen, she struggles to communicate or handle responding. The smallest words that seep out of her catch maximum effect. “You’ve got to be real to be funny,” states Elaine Stritch in her one woman show, and this rings true for Shannon. Her decades in comedy have taught her how to be a dramatic gem.
Writer-director Chris Kelly framed his debut feature with lived in authenticity. From the uncomfortable family get-togethers to determining how to keep a family together when their mother is gone, the emotional weight of the movie is all too realistic, and he keeps the struggle and the laughs balanced by pinballing between harsh reality and uncomfortable truths.
Maybe I’m biased in my views of cancer movies, as my family has been tested time and again with unencumbered cell growth, but this movie had me in tears: a very rare feat (only 2 last year). The climactic scene between mother and son deserves accolades for its concluding remarks; a grieving mother and son realize what life after death may exhibit. For anyone seeking a movie both achingly personal and hysterically funny, find Other People.