In its opening scene, Other People tells you its not going to be just another cancer drama, and that part of what makes other cancer stories feel sterile and impersonal is that they’re unwilling to embrace the fact that the world moves on while your world falls apart. Writer-director Chris Kelly drew from his own experience to make the film, and it shows throughout as Other People constantly embraces the little, specific, tender moments in between the standard pit stops as a loved one slowly dies from cancer. Led by excellent performances, especially from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon, Other People rarely forces any emotion, which is why it’s so successful at pulling at your heartstrings.
After the film opens with the death of matriarch Joanne (Shannon), the movie cuts back one year to where she’s been recently diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Her son David (Plemons), a writer for Saturday Night Live, has come home to Sacramento to care for his mother, and the story follows his point of view as he watches his mother deteriorate and his own life fall apart in the process. As dark and painful as the story can be at times, there are still moments of joy, friendship, and even the possibility of healing as David, who is openly gay, struggles to confront the latent homophobia from his father, Norman (Bradley Whitford). However, the focus remains primarily on David and how the little things affect his life.
Even though the movie is autobiographical, Kelly doesn’t try to make David out to be a saint even though it’s a tremendously selfless act to give up a career working on SNL to come care for a sick mother, especially when David’s father is around and he also has two younger sisters. If anything, the movie points out all the way David is being selfish, even going so far as to have one of his sisters chastise him for not asking how they feel about what’s happening to their family. The movie maturely acknowledges that there’s only so much capacity for this kind of pain, and that even though the story goes month by month, their pain has to be endured moment by moment.
The title refers to a conversation David has with a friend and he notes how this kind of situation used to happen to “other people” and the friend responds that David is now the “other people to other people.” Almost immediately after that exchange, a man in a wheelchair goes by, and we’re reminded that there are levels of struggle that remain a blessed mystery until we’re thrust into them without choice, and rather than mine this particular struggle, a family dealing with cancer, to sweeping effect, Kelly works his hardest to make it all feel honest and specific.
He’s incredibly successful, and although there are moments in the third act where it begins to feel forced, for the most part, Other People feels both unique to his experiences and yet universal to where it will absolutely wreck anyone who sees it even if you’re lucky enough that you haven’t had to deal with similar circumstances. It’s a tremendous first feature, and while there are some bumps along the way, it always remains on target, especially thanks to the talented cast.
Like many Friday Night Lights fans, I’ve been a cheerleader for Plemons for some time now, and I’ve always been glad to see him pop up in other stuff even if it’s supporting work like his turns in Breaking Bad, The Master, and Black Mass. He finally gets to take the lead here, and he doesn’t disappoint. Plemons never runs away from David’s more unlikable aspects and always embraces the characters vulnerabilities without coming off as pathetic or weak. I’m sure it helps if your character is based off the writer/director, but Plemons knows that Kelly is trying to go for a restrained picture and wisely keeps his performance at that level.
The showstopper is Shannon, who will likely start getting buzzed about in Oscar conversations. Her performance is absolutely devastating, but it’s not simply a gimme because we feel sympathy for a dying mother and we’re projecting onto her. Joanne has a life and a backstory and Shannon’s best moments aren’t when she’s crying over being poked and prodded during another round of chemo (although that’s certainly heartbreaking), but the smaller moments when she plays it small and we can see on her face that she’s starting to realize what life will look like without her. Cancer takes away so much more than you can conceive, and Shannon plays those moments of realization to maximum effect.
While there’s no single “right” way to tell a story about dealing with cancer, Kelly told his as honestly as possible, and it makes Other People both oddly funny and at times so devastating that I wanted to leave the theater and call my parents even though they’re both perfectly healthy. Rather than try to hit big moments, Other People finds comfort and grace in the smaller ones.
For more of our Sundance 2016 coverage, click here or on the links below for our reviews: