'Other People': Sundance Review

An assured, gently funny debut about family tragedy.

Jesse Plemons shines as a son nursing his mother (Molly Shannon) through her final year.

A sensitive look at a man's long goodbye to his dying mother, Chris Kelly's Other People understands that even primal grief and fear can't always squeeze out mundane self-obsession. Ably playing the loving son, a comedy writer quietly worrying that his life is falling apart even without having Mom's cancer in the picture, Jesse Plemons delivers on the promise he has shown in so many supporting roles since his Friday Night Lights breakthrough; Molly Shannon, making a terminally-ill two-fer after last year's similarly themed Sundance gem Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, shoulders a heavy dramatic load gracefully. Funny enough to help viewers cope with its downer theme but certainly not an outright comedy, the debut has a reasonably broad appeal and leaves little doubt that Kelly, a vet of SNL and short-form comedy films, can handle himself on the big screen.

Playing a surrogate for Kelly, who based the script on personal experience, Plemons is David, who leaves a fledgling NYC career behind to return to his Sacramento home and care for mother Joanne. His family is loving but conservatively religious, and Dad's refusal to accept his son's sexuality (ten years after David came out) exaggerates the usual returning-New-Yorker sensation of being a stranger in one's own home. But with a recent breakup and some professional failures awaiting him in the city, David belongs at home now more than he wants to admit.

After starting the film off with a comically extreme collision of wrenching sadness and inanity, Kelly's script explores the many small ways daily interactions are made strange when a cancer diagnosis becomes public. Plemons registers the absurdity around him with quiet disbelief, biting his nails and hoping it will pass. Sharing little with his two younger sisters (Maude Apatow, taking a successful first step away from her father's productions, and Madisen Beaty), David only opens up about how adrift he is to a high-school friend (John Early) who lost his own mother years ago. When he admits to believing things like this only happen to other people, the friend answers "you're 'other people' to other people."

Sad about breaking up with his long-term boyfriend but unwilling to burden his mother with the news, David is, in a way, closeted once again, playing nurse during the day while considering his romantic options in the limited time he has to himself. The fact that he's no longer living with Paul (Zach Woods), though, doesn't keep David from being indignant that his father (Bradley Whitford) won't say his name. This friction, like everything else in the film, is handled more subtly than expected; Whitford is fine as a man whose shortcomings can be summed up in a single line, when he responds to David's complaints by saying he has never been unwilling to discuss his sexuality — that he's happy to "have that debate" any time. The point, David complains, is that it's not a debate.

As her character struggles through chemo, decides to quit treatment and starts to decline, Shannon withers heartbreakingly before us. Only when Joanne loses her voice, though, do we start to feel her loss as David does. In the pair's many scenes alone together, Kelly depicts a deep filial love that isn't dependent on complete telepathic understanding. Mother and son remain, to some extent, mysteries to each other, saying the best goodbyes they can while moving toward their respective destinations.

Production companies: Park Pictures, Gettin' Rad Productions

Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude

Apatow, Madisen Beaty, John Early, Zach Woods, Paul Dooley, June Squibb

Director-Screenwriter: Chris Kelly

Producers: Adam Scott, Naomi Scott, Sam Bisbee

Executive producers: Lance Acord, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Cathleen Ihasz, Nicole Ihasz, David Ryan, Hunter Ryan, Richard J. Bosner, Stephanie Apt

Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne

Production designer: Tracy Dishman

Costume designer: Kerry Hennessy    

Editor: Patrick Colman

Composer: Julian Wass

Casting director: Allison Jones

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Sales: WME

96 minutes