PARK CITY – The 2016 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with four world premieres Thursday but the last film of the night was one of the most anticipated, Chris Kelly’s directorial debut “Other People.” Kelly, whose day job is as a staff writer on “Saturday Night Live,” demonstrates his abilities as a writer and a good grasp of working with actors as a director. Unfortunately, his choice to play the movie’s lead character may have been a slight miscalculation, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Based on real events in Kelly’s life, “People” centers on an almost thirty-year-old David (Jesse Plemmons) and his return to his hometown of Sacramento, California where his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), has been diagnosed with a rare form of nerve cancer. Sadly, her chances of beating it are always slim, but David is going to live at home to assist her in any way he can. We quickly discover that David has hidden the fact he’s broken up from his longtime boyfriend Paul (a gone too soon Zach Woods) so his mother doesn’t think his life has gone to shambles as he’s also missed out on getting his TV pilot script picked up. Meanwhile, David’s father (Bradley Whitford) simply ignores the fact that he’s gay and their relationship could be described as civil at best.* David’s younger sisters (Madisen Beaty, Maude Apatow) crave his attention, but he’s too preoccupied on wallowing in self-pity and working on a new script to notice.
*There is also a suggestion David’s father didn’t assist in paying for his college education because he was gay, but it’s never mentioned again. This seems like a strange conflict for Kelly not to revisit as the tension between the two grows.
The film’s biggest strengths are pretty obvious: Molly Shannon’s performance and Kelly’s ability to shine a light on aspects of gay life that don’t always find they’re way to the big screen.
Shannon, who was also excellent in last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” has the tough job of conveying Joanne’s slow 12-month decline on screen. This is a woman who doesn’t want her children to think she’s given up and who still finds the humor in this dark period of her life. It’s a subtly shaded performance that needs to be the heart of the picture for it to impact audiences and in that aspect Shannon absolutely delivers.
While exploring David’s life Kelly can’t avoid touching on some familiar and soon to be dated references (grindr, OKCupid), but he still find other ways to surprise. In one scene, David goes on an internet date and completely embarrasses himself as the gay man from the big city who can’t imagine why anyone (ie, any other gay man) would ever want to live in Sacramento (surprise, his blind date actually likes it). More nuanced are the scenes when Paul does David a huge favor by pretending they are still a couple during his mother’s NYC visit. David ends up staying the night to complete the ruse and their interactions are some of the most realistic moments in the picture. One of the film’s unexpected problems, however, may have been casting Jesse Plemons as David.
Best known for his work on “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad,” Plemons has been phenomenal recently on FX’s “Fargo” and in a supporting role in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.” While he simply acts his ass off – for lack of a better phrase – throughout “Other People” he never seems quite right. It’s not that David needs to be more feminine or even more butch as a gay man. The issue is you never believe he’s the talented comedy writer the audience is told he is. A perfect example is a scene where David and his family return to New York City so his mother can watch him perform live with his UCB improv team for the first time. The moment is scripted to be more about his mother’s interaction with his friends, but David seems completely uncomfortable on the stage. It’s just hard to believe he’s a comedic talent waiting for his big break.
“Other People” is assisted by a fine ensemble including June Squibb and Paul Dooley as David’s grandparents, John Early as his old friend Gabe and J.J. Toah who practically steals the movie as Gabe’s much younger and also gay brother Justin. The latter only has two real scenes in the movie, but Toah (who likely wrote most of his own dialogue) is simply hilarious. Justin is a young teen who is flamboyant, fierce and completely confident with himself. It’s a joy to watch and probably the most progressive moment in the entire film.
Overall, Kelly has trouble avoiding some of the major bumps you’d expect from a first time filmmaker. He’s arguably too precious with some of the scenes he kept in the picture, holds on some scenes much longer than necessary and sometimes can’t avoid the cliché crutch to bail himself out of a corner. That being said, he does demonstrate flashes of true talent. And for a first film that tries to walk a delicate line of comedy and drama and mostly succeeds that’s no laughing matter.