Sundance 2016: There’s plenty of good in ‘Other People’

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Other People
Written & Directed by Chris Kelly
USA, 2016

There is nothing glamorous about dying. Other People, the poignant new dramedy from writer-director Chris Kelly, makes it clear that living can be a drag, too. Nothing is sugar-coated and there are no shortcuts here; just the inexorable march toward fate and the sublime moments we cherish along the way. Nuanced performances and pitch-perfect dialogue make Other People a painful, yet life-affirming experience.

It’s been a pretty terrible year for David (Jesse Plemons). Not only is he stuck in his backwards hometown taking care of his dying mother (Molly Shannon), he just broke up with a boyfriend (Zach Woods) that his homophobic father (Bradley Whitford) refuses to even acknowledge. He’s accumulating a pile of rejected comedy spec scripts and can barely afford his shoebox-sized New York apartment. This is the type of year that either kills you or makes you a hell of a lot smarter (and bitter).

Part of the power of Other People is the confidence it has in its deliberate pacing. Chris Kelly takes the time to draw David’s world in painstaking and dispassionate detail. There is pain, there is joy, and there is the monotony in between. His mother’s cancer might have brought him back home, but David left a lot of baggage behind, as well. Indeed, this might be the most honest portrayal of issues facing openly gay men that we see this year.

Whereas countless indie dramedies simply pair up their characters and make them spout saccharine speeches (see: This Is Where I Leave You), Other People earns every understated admission and realization. The performances are naturalistic and comfortable; each informed by the cast’s willingness to fully embrace the futility of their situation. To watch someone die is horrible, but there is also beauty in the lessons that death teaches. Kelly captures this paradox with his writing, while the actors punch it home with honesty and pluck.

Of course, there are times when Kelly (Saturday Night Live) over-indulges his writerly instincts. Several non sequiturs with supporting characters fall flat, as when a flamboyant teenage friend of the family performs a provocative dance recital. “I feel like we could all go to jail for watching this,” David quips. It’s just one of the broad gags that Kelly employs to earn easy laughs, which stands in stark contrast to the subtlety of the surrounding story.

Otherwise, this is an assured feature debut from Kelly. He knows when to let his camera linger on the action and when to cut his losses. Likewise, he understands the effectiveness of a good close-up and the benefits of giving his characters some space. One particularly beautiful choice, and a repeated motif throughout the film, is the God’s eye view we get of David and his mother’s daily walk in the park. Over the months we see her deterioration, her momentary recoveries, and her eventual descent. It’s a voyeuristic lens that drives home the film’s central theme; these are the horrors that only happen to other people.

But the horror is only part of the equation. There is also the love that re-affirms the bonds that sustain us. It may be cliché to say that death gives life meaning, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Other People is a year-in-the-life saga that just happens to include a death. It’s a search for resolution that will never come and a happy ending plagued by bitter-sweet compromise and a cheesy power ballad. With this delicate debut, Chris Kelly announces himself as a filmmaker to watch.

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