'People, Places, Things': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A very engaging indie romantic comedy  

Jemaine Clement stars in a romantic comedy about the after-effects of a split when children are involved.

Funny, charming and just a bit cute, People, Places, Things is a warm and knowing romantic comedy about the lingering after-effects of a split when it involves kids, constant contact with exes and hopeful future mates. Led by the mordantly droll Jemaine Clement as a penny-pinched New York graphic novelist struggling upstream with life and the numerous females in his orbit, a superb, comically gifted cast helps writer-director Jim Strouse lift this quite a few cuts above his previous work as well as above the general run of films about modern life and relationships. Attentive effort by an enterprising distributor could put this over as a good, midsized draw equally appealing to men and women.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015

The first film director to come out of Goshen, Ind., since Howard Hawks, Strouse previously directed Grace Is Gone (which also prominently featured a father spending considerable time alone with two daughters) and the girls-basketball-team-centered The Winning Season. His new film shows a very sure hand in blending comic and more serious elements, a task made immeasurably easier by New Zealander Clement (Flight of the Conchords), who’s pretty funny even when he’s trying to be dead serious.

Perhaps the most cloying scene is the opening, when Will Henry (Clement), in the middle of his twin girls’ birthday party, catches Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) — his wife and the girls’ mother — in the act with pal Gary (Michael Chernus). But even this is incongruously amusing because Gary is fat and everyone’s so rational about it all.

See more Next Gen at Sundance: Inside The Party With Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch

A year later, Will’s caustic wit may be sharper than ever, but his misery remains unleavened now that his ex is pregnant and thinking of marrying big boy. An ambitious book project put aside, Will teaches cartooning to a mixed bag of students, one of whom, Kat (Jessica Williams), invites him over for dinner — not with her, she stresses, but with her “hot” mom, Diane (Regina Hall).

So begins the most appealing narrative strand in the film, one that seems destined not to get off the ground at all when Diane meets Will at the door to inform him of what her daughter doesn’t know, that she’s begun dating someone else. Nonetheless, he’s prevailed upon to stay, the adults eating in one room while Kat sits within earshot in the next, but he returns home deflated over the misrepresentation.

If treated superficially just for laughs, much of what follows could easily have been just sitcom fodder: A camping trip to the woods to which the little twin sisters (the spry and unself-conscious Gia and Aundrea Gadsby) bring their cellos and Dad must sleep outside the too-small tent; Will asking Kat to babysit the girls while he teaches the class in which Kat is a student; the newly amorous Will and Diane being interrupted by one of the girls.

See more Sundance: Exclusive Photos of Kristen Wiig, Jack Black, Ethan Hawke and More

But the level of the writing and performance raises all this and much else to an admirable level of human comedy, where foibles are not just shtick or attitude but part of the fabric of something bigger. Adroit comic timing and working against expectations play significant roles in making the film a pretty constant delight. But it’s the emotional pull underneath all of Will’s unpracticed efforts to make things right — to be with Diane, to care properly for his daughters, to know how to react to Charlie when she expresses reservations about marrying Gary, to help his students, particularly the talented Kat — that makes everything register as well as it does here.

Clement’s Will cuts a highly unlikely figure for a would-be romantic lead in an American comedy; he’s got an odd accent, he dresses badly (but not comically so), his stubble is not of the fashionable kind, he’s kind of downbeat much of the time, he’s got big funny teeth and ever-present glasses, he may not take showers or wash his clothes regularly and he’s not cool in any readily identifiable way. And yet he’s extremely likeable for all his dominant human impulses and his humor, and he may, even at around 40, still have a lot of potential. He could be a winner underneath all the mess.

Everyone’s in fine form here, but particularly so are Hall as a woman who’s made many mistakes with men (as hilariously documented by her daughter) but is still trying, and Williams as her bright and artistically promising offspring.

New York neighborhood locations provide the colorful backdrops and Mark Orton’s score, some little twee elements to the side, mostly provides flavorsome moods. The characters’ many cartoons and illustrations are very well worked in.

Production company: Beachside
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus, Gia Gadsby, Aundrea Gadsby
Director: Jim Strouse
Screenwriter: Jim Strouse
Producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Executive producers: Tim Foley, Summer Shelton
Director of photography: Chris Teague
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Keri Lee Doris
Editor: Colleen Sharp
Music: Mark Orton

No rating, 85 minutes