Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in ‘Other People’ (Sundance Institute)
In Other People, a talented group of supporting players step up into the sort of starring roles they seemed, in retrospect, destined to play.
A deeply personal and semi-autobiographical first feature written and directed by comedy writer Chris Kelly (Saturday Night Live and Broad City), the film premiered on Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival. The dramedy, about a young gay comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to bland Sacramento to help care for his dying mother (Molly Shannon) and deal with his quietly bigoted dad (Bradley Whitford), earned every tear and laugh from the sold-out crowd with a mix of specificity and pathos that could have only been written by someone who lived through the events depicted on screen. Kelly also deserves credit for his deft casting; perhaps the biggest revelations were the performances by vets Shannon (SNL) and Plemons (Friday Night Lights, Fargo), who, as mother and son, turn in nuanced and perhaps career-redefining performances.
Shannon, as she told the audience during the post-screening Q&A, grew up dreaming of becoming a serious actress, and as a student at NYU, “did a lot of monologues in dramatic southern accents.” There’s always been an element of melancholy in her best comedic bits — her SNL breakout character, Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher, was a scared and overcompensating teen — and 25 years of mixing vulnerability and broad comedy seem to have prepared her for the role of Joanne, the loving matriarch suffering from an incurable cancer while trying to mend her semi-broken family.
The film makes no mystery about her fate; it opens and closes with her death, though even those scenes are played for cathartic laughs. She physically wilts from the useless chemotherapy, and Shannon shows no vanity as she allows the makeup team to rapidly suck the life out of her. But Joanne, a second-grade teacher before her illness, was a vibrant woman, and that always shines through, both in her refusal to cave in arguments — she does not want to be cremated — and her excitement for her children.
Plemons, known for playing troubled souls in cable dramas and most recently seen on the big screen getting the crap kicked out of him in Black Mass, is the quiet center of the film as David, who leaves his job and ex-boyfriend Paul (Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods) in New York to come home. His character is based on Kelly, though you couldn’t tell from the writer/director’s exuberance on stage Thursday night; Plemons plays David as a lonely, frustrated creative type who feels no control over his fate. If he’s cracking jokes (which he’s apparently good at), they’re all in his head. His way of dealing with everyone — aside from his mother and his one hometown friend Gabe (John Early) — largely consists of tight smiles and efforts to extricate himself.
It’s hard to blame him: David tries to get writing jobs from across the country and stay in touch with Paul despite their breakup, but very little goes his way. He’s alienated from his sisters (Maude Apatow and Madison Beaty), and his dad, while loving, refuses to acknowledge that David is gay even though he came out a decade before.
The buzz after the screening was that few films in recent memory have managed to so deftly balance big laughs (the recurrence of the Train song “Drops of Jupiter” and David’s masturbation memories were huge punch lines) and serious tugs on the heartstrings. Often films about creative New Yorkers going back home tend to veer toward meanness, but even if David’s relatives are portrayed as kooky and small-town (June Squibb and Veep’s Matt Walsh are highlights), they’re always caring and supportive. And special kudos to 14-year-old Glee star J.J. Totah, who absolutely steals his scenes as Gabe’s very flamboyant younger brother.
Sundance routinely introduces many indie dramedies to the world, but Other People is a cut above most. With these performances, Shannon and Plemons are no longer the other people in a cast — they’ve proven they can carry a movie on their own.