Sundance 2015: ‘People, Places, Things’ an awkwardly charming romantic comedy about a single dad

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People, Places, Things
Directed and written by James C. Strouse
USA, 2015

Light laughs, heartwarming moments, and a slightly snarky commentary make up the majority of James C. Strouse’s adorable People, Places, Things. This is the perfect vehicle for the expertly awkward comedic timing of Jemaine Clement (Flight of the ConchordsWhat We Do in the Shadows). His stilted mannerisms and witty line deliveries make him a lovingly believable oddball. It focuses on a good man who has to make tough choices after his life is thrown into chaos.

Following his wife’s infidelity, Will Henry (Clement) is left to pick up the tattered pieces of his ego. It’s rare to see a man as the protagonist in a romantic comedy, and while Clement is just as hapless as any woman in the same situation, it’s notable that his career enhances his character instead of it just being background noise to his pursuit of romantic fulfillment. As a graphic novelist and teacher, he has the opportunity to draw out his feelings, relating his struggles to his students in lesson plans instead of blandly narrating them, or confiding in a quirky best friend. His drawings keep his inner monologue out in the open, and provide an essential window into his world. The drawings are a clever device that innovatively keep the movie flowing in an original direction. Instead of getting bogged down with the same cliches that turn people off of stories, the drawings work to uncover personal epiphanies concerning love and happiness 

A year after his break-up, Will’s loneliness gains traction as he fails to move on from his dismantled marriage. He tries to spend more time with his young daughters (a cute pair of actresses played by Gia and Aundrea Gadsby), but bungles their packed schedule of school and extracurricular activities. It’s not that the selfish whining and whimpering of Will’s ex-wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) is unrealistic, it’s that her ineptness feels tacked on in a way that comes across as false compared to the effortless brand of clowning that Clement exudes.

Clement is gentle, damaged, and resilient as Will. We root for him because his story, vulnerability and acceptance of failure is genuinely moving. He makes mistakes, tries to correct them, fails again and then starts over with a high probability of striking out. Kat (The Daily Show’s sassy Jessica Williams), a bright student of Will’s, tries to pair him with her English-professor mother (Regina Hall), yet neither one of them knows exactly how to deal with each other, or dating. Kat and her mother are articulate and intelligent women who shake up Will’s already packed life. The damaged Will is torn in so many directions that it’s hard for him and the viewer to sort out which way he should be going. Thankfully, the decision making process is realistically messy. Strouse’s People,  Places, Things is a treat because of Clement’s comedically engaging performance and for the way it trusts its audience to be smart and ready to be shown and not told a story through a visual focus on character development that clearly supersedes the usual blatant, dulled down statements of intent that many films employ.

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