Other People (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): As his mother is dying

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If you are a seasoned moviegoer like me, you will instantly see that “Other People” is filled with many typical elements you can expect from a bittersweet family comedy drama involved with terminal illness, but, fortunately, the movie is better than you may expect. As it calmly and closely observes the interactions between its depressed hero and several other substantial characters in the film, we get to know more about them while also coming to understand them more, and this is engaging enough to hold our attention even though we can clearly see how the story will eventually end.

The story is mainly told through the viewpoint of David (Jesee Plemons), a young comedy writer who is going through a very difficult period in his life. His professional career has been going nowhere especially since the pilot of his comedy TV series was rejected, and his personal life is shaken up by two different incidents. Not long after he broke up with his boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods), his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed to have a cancer, so he comes back to his family home in Sacramento, California for being with his mother.

Sincerely supported by her family, Joanne tries to maintain her spirit as much as she can. On New Year’s Eve, her parents and sisters visit her house, and the mood becomes cheerful when she gladly presents herself while wearing her flashy old-fashioned dress. As the new year is about to begin, everything feels merry and hopeful, and it looks like she will be all right in the next year.

However, as already shown to us in the very beginning of the film, she is going to die in the end, and her family members soon find themselves helplessly watching her difficult and painful struggle with cancer. Due to chemotherapy, she frequently vomits while often becoming moody and cranky, and she eventually gives up her chemotherapy several months later as there has not been any sign of recovery. Accepting her unavoidable death, she wants to die with less pain and difficulty, and her family respects that.

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Feeling more brightened than before, she goes to New York City for watching her son performing along with other comedy performers on the stage, and she surely has a fun time when she is invited to the stage, but her body keeps becoming weakened day by day. When she visits an elementary school where she worked before her illness, we cannot help but notice how much she looks feeble compared to her chatty colleagues, and there is a poignant moment when she struggles to tell an amusing anecdote about one of her students.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on the accumulating depression and frustration inside David. He keeps looking for any other chance for his professional career, but he seems to be going nowhere as before while continuing to stay in his family home. Sill not fully recovering from his breakup with Paul, he tries to move on from that while hiding that from his family, but he is rather clumsy in his attempt. At one point, he tries a dating website suggested to him by his gay childhood friend, and he later manages to have a date with some guy, but then he cannot help but nervous in front of that guy.

And there is a relationship problem with his father Norman (Bradley Whitford), who, unlike his other family members, still cannot accept his son’s homosexuality well due to his religious background. After his family watch his stage performance in New York City, David wants to show his family his apartment and then introduce them to Paul, but Norman even refuses to go inside the apartment, and David is apparently hurt by that.

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What I have so far described surely sounds like your average Sundance family drama, and the movie was indeed shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, but director/writer Chris Kelly brings a considerable amount of honesty and sincerity to his story and characters. While the characters in the film often feel like archetypes, they are depicted with care and humor nonetheless, and I was not so surprised to learn later that the movie is loosely based on Kelly’s own life. Before making this first feature film of his, he actually worked as a comedy writer of “Saturday Night Live”, and he also lost his mother to cancer in 2009.

As mainly driven by its characters and their personalities, the movie depends a lot on its main cast members’ talent, and they do not disappoint us at all. While Jesse Plemons, a promising actor whom I began to notice via his notable supporting turns in TV series “Breaking Bad” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012), is engaging in his unaffected performance, Molly Shannon, who has been mainly known for her comedy work in “Saturday Night Live”, is unpretentious in her character’s gradual deterioration, and their commendable acting gives us some of the most moving scenes in the film. While Zach Woods has a small nice scene with Plemons, Bradley Whitford has a heartfelt moment when his character happens to have a private conversation with David, and Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty are also solid as Norman and Joanne’s two other children.

Overall, “Other People” is a gentle comedy drama equipped with good performances. While there is a fair share of melancholy and sadness, there is also an ample amount of humor and warmth in the story, and the movie did a fine job on the whole as earning its laughs and tears via its sincere, thoughtful storytelling. Yes, I could discern what exactly it was going to do, but I enjoyed how well it did that, and that was enough for me.

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