At some point your parents are going to die. It's a fact that you learn early on in life that will terrify you when it surfaces in your brain. I've known a few people who've had their parents die and no one can truly be prepared for it, regardless of how sudden the day comes. If you're lucky, you'll be an old person when it happens and they'll be really old. But most people don't get that luxury.
One of those people was Chris Kelly, who lost his under-fifty-year-old mom to cancer in 2009 and is the first-time writer-director of this autobiographical movie. He's a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and Broad City with a background in the Upright Citizen's Brigade. He brings all of that experience to this film, which is about a struggling, gay New York writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to Sacramento to be with his family when his own mother's (Molly Shannon) health begins to fail against cancer. He hasn't been home in almost ten years, which is made painfully obvious by the fact that his conservative dad (Bradley Whitford) still won't acknowledge his homosexuality, and he has a distanced relationship with his two younger sisters.
David (Plemons) was also recently dumped by his boyfriend, Paul (Zach Woods), so his life is in a bit of a tailspin. His career isn't doing great, either, but he puts on a brave face for his mother and decides to hide all of this from her to make her feel as comfortable as possible. Perhaps one of the reasons Paul broke up with David is because he "sit[s] all day in his head," so you can imagine that he's experienced with keeping things from the people around him.
Other People is and feels like a first film. It's deeply personal and has clearly been gestating in Kelly's head since his own traumatic life event happened to him. It also has a lot of the trappings of a stereotypical Sundance movie: a narcissistic protagonist who requires the suffering and/or death of those around him in order to grow, comedians cast in dramatic roles, a strong sense of place that nevertheless feels familiar, quirky family dynamics, you name it.
But Other People is better than your run-of-the-mill indie. Its cast is wonderful, held together by a typically understated (and great) performance by Plemons, who is usually the most interesting person on screen at a given time. Shannon also gives career-best work in a filmography that would not have anticipated such a subtly devastating turn. Whitford is reliably difficult to like, seeming to have cornered the market on these roles. We see this family only as they exist today with no flashbacks, so it's up to the actors to convey their shared history and its buried resentments, which they do admirably. Kelly's script is witty and funny, with dialogue that feels like it's actually happened, saccharine as it can sometimes get.
The movie isn't too long at just over ninety minutes, but there are moments that feel broader than the rest of the film's tone warrants. David goes on a date with a hapless guy from OKCupid, during which he is plastered on white wine and dissing the very kind of person who would use such a dating site (i.e., himself and his date). He then throws up on the way to the bathroom, and we get a silly long shot of Plemons cleaning up the puke from the door while the other restaurant-goers enjoy themselves. There's also a charming but out-of-place sequence in which David visits his friend from home, whose little brother puts on a ludicrous drag show for their father's sixtieth birthday party. I'm not saying that this sort of thing doesn't happen--it really feels like the truth is stranger than fiction in this movie--but it clashes with the otherwise somber tone of the film. David is such a stick-in-the-mud himself that you cringe to be around him as much as you do, so the lightness of these sequences is welcome; they just don't fit in super well.
At least Kelly doesn't spend the movie trying to convince us that David is a great comedy writer. He works intermittently and half-heartedly, which is understandable considering the circumstances, so it's not too surprising when he ends up failing to get a consistent job. We see David perform at a hilarious UCB improv show, so he clearly has talent. It's just that it's buried beneath a veneer of nonstop brooding and moodiness. The fact that he's forced to spend near-constant time with a family he doesn't much relate to certainly doesn't help: we can all get behind that feeling. His estranged father is constantly goading the not-the-skinniest David to go to the gym and to try out boxing classes, double-speak for a dad's wish to be fulfilled that his son be manlier and, you know, less gay. Kelly is adept at drawing characters who communicate with one another in practically any way but a direct conversation. It's a bit of a stretch that David would hide so much of his life from his family, until you actually meet his family.
Other People shows good potential for Kelly as a writer-director, especially in the former role. He wisely avoids over-plotting the movie--there's no obvious ticking timer for Shannon's character--and instead favors character moments. There are a few that will have you reaching for tissues and then your phone to call your mom. Now if he can just settle on a tone, his next film could be almost great.