A semi-autobiographical story of comedy in the heart of tragedy, Chris Kelly’s Other People sees both good things and bad happen to us all.
Good Thingsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This is the absolute opposite of the stereotypical sentimental – hugging and sharing – American movie about terminal illness. Struggling comedy scriptwriter David (Jesse Plemons, from TV series Fargo and Breaking Bad) returns home to Sacramento to help his family care for his mother who is dying of cancer (an unflinchingly honest performance from Molly Shannon). From a family New Year’s Eve party to her death in December, it’s the worst year of his life. He has just split up with his partner in New York, Paul (Zach Woods), but he doesn’t want to tell his mother, who’s happy for him. His father (Bradley Whitford), in contrast, has never accepted David’s coming out as gay.
Written and directed by Saturday Night Live writing supervisor Chris Kelly, the script’s technique is to undercut its horrendously serious moments with comic interruptions, and, though unlikely, this balances really well. A conversation about David’s mother’s chemotherapy takes place outside a comedy club and is broken into by a fan. A 60th birthday party is enlivened by a jaw-droppingly camp cabaret turn by his pre-adolescent adopted son (JJ Totah). David’s parents get endearingly stoned on medical marijuana and have to be put to bed by their two teenage daughters, David’s younger sisters. David and Paul have a touchingly off-the-wall conversation in bed during a brief bitter-sweet reunion about their teenage masturbation fantasies.
Why David’s grandparents live in a caravan is not explained – his grandmother is played by the wonderful June Squibb, Nebraska – but though they are at first presented as comic characters, we see the effects of the coming death of their daughter on them too. It’s the story of David’s “shitty, lonely year” in a city that he doesn’t want to be in, at a miserable time in his own life and in the most demanding caring role of his life. He’s trying to write comedy scripts while he’s surrounded by tragedy, Kelly makes him a rounded, sympathetic person at the heart of the film.
The semi-autobiographical script is well-written and economical, simultaneous very funny and so sad that tears will flow. And the Other People of the title? Over the course of the film, David moves from thinking something better always happens to other people – as he is saying this in a bar to his childhood friend (John Early), we see behind his back someone approaching in a wheelchair – to the realisation after a disastrous internet date that other people are sad too. Funny and sad cannot help but be inextricably mixed in life.
Other People is now showing at the Sundance Film Festival London