NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Other People opens September 9th.
Sundance is quickly becoming the unofficial home for illness dramas masked as comedies, a genre unto itself despite the difficulty of pulling off such a delicate emotional balance. This year's entry in that growing field is Other People, the confident, heartfelt, and funny directorial debut by SNL writer Chris Kelly, who casts one of that show's most talented stars, Molly Shannon, in a role that's sure to have people looking at her as more than just a comedienne. But this is a film full of eye-opening performances and subtle turns that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
While Shannon gets to show her rarely-used dramatic chops, it's Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and Fargo scene-stealer Jesse Plemons who delivers in his biggest role to date. He plays David, a struggling gay comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento help care for his mother Joanne (Shannon) who is dying of cancer. They say that love means never having to say you're sorry, but it also means setting your own shit aside when others need you more, and that's what David does for his family. He's got enough to contend with, missing out on a potentially lucrative comedy pilot and dealing with a painful breakup. Outwardly, David seems perfectly okay, but inside he's a wreck who is barely holding it together.
Kelly, who is basing the story largely on his own experiences, doesn't try to hide the tragic end of Joanne's disease. The film actually begins with the family grieving over her death, but he uses this moment of sadness to find ironic humor in the situation. It sets the tone for the entire film in which laughs and lightness are found in moments of great tragedy. David, who has been living with rejection by his father (Bradley Whitford), finds ways to connect with his two sisters and ease his mother's pain by convincing her everything is okay.
The tender moments shared between David and Joanne are beautifully done and the film's centerpiece. Plemons is given a truly complex character to embody for the first time and his performance is a genuine revelation. David's not some golden child; he isn't perfect at all, really. But he's real and flawed, capable of selfishly putting his own grief ahead of his siblings'. As great as Plemons is, and could be poised to become a huge star, he's even better with paired with Shannon. It's not an understatement to say that Shannon has never been better. This is a role that could have been sappy and melodramatic, but the tears we shed for Joanne aren't just because she's dying. It's at the loss of a vibrant life, one still full of great potential. She's a woman with a big personality and a lot of love in her heart, and watching her wither away over the course of a year is devastating. Interestingly, Shannon co-starred in last year's breakout Sundance hit, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, playing the mother of a cancer-stricken teen. But with Other People she proves she can tackle the disease herself with humor and grace.
Rating: 4 out of 5