Drops of Life: "Other People" a deeply affecting, painfully funny, superbly acted must-see

Other People (2016)
97 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

Just calling “Other People” an illness drama would be underselling its worth. Superficially, it falls into a genre of quirky, wacky dramedies that tend to premiere at Sundance and make film critics want to rip their hair out, but former “Saturday Night Live” writer Chris Kelly makes his auspicious writing-directing feature debut with deft modulation, insight and unblinking honesty. Without ever striking a false note—helped by the fact that most of it is autobiographical from Kelly’s own life—the film feels like the first of its kind and runs the gamut of emotions with universality, a sometimes painfully authentic ring of truth and prickly, natural releases of humor. Sensitive yet bittersweet and often very, very funny, “Other People” never feels like it is trying to hit big dramatic and comedic moments; it just feels true to life.

29-year-old David Mulcahy (Jesse Plemons) is a struggling comedy writer, based in New York City. His had early success with a spec script for a TV pilot he sold to a network, but now his recent breakup, unbeknownst to his family, with live-in longtime boyfriend Paul (Zack Woods) has also left him feeling down. When his life takes an even more severe turn with the cancer diagnosis for mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), a second-grade teacher, David returns home in Sacramento for a year. Back in the suburban household with conservative father Norman (Bradley Whitford) and siblings Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty), he hopes to bring comfort to his mother after she decides to quit chemotherapy. Not only is David going to lose his biggest support system in mother Joanne, but his career and longest relationship are both on the line.

Walking a delicate tonal balance that can be tricky and nearly impossible to pull off, “Other People” gets off to a tearfully sad and then unexpectedly amusing start. It begins where most tearjerkers end and then circles back around. This isn’t really the kind of film that requires a “spoiler alert,” but right off the top, Joanne’s family has just lost her to cancer. Her sobbing husband and kids surround her in bed, and then the phone rings. From the voicemail that can be heard, the caller is one of Joanne’s clueless friends, sending out her condolences for newly discovering Joanne to be sick in between a drive-thru order at Taco Bell. That same tightrope mastery is achieved again and again.

Leading the way as David, Jesse Plemons (who seemed to be first noticed on TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) is outstanding in a vivid, understated way. He handles the fully formed part of a gay character with a subtlety that can’t really be recalled on film. Instead of overplaying stereotypical effeminacy in his voice or his body language, Plemons has a way of turning hand gestures and the biting of his nails into subtle character nuances. Every situation, like running into a former classmate, making a grocery run where an item on the list cannot be found, and going on an awkward date, are made relatable by Plemons and Kelly’s writing. Not since her rangy, revelatory in 2007’s “Year of the Dog” has the lovely Molly Shannon been given the chance to be this wonderful. In a role that allows her to be funny without being shticky and locate real pathos without any Lifetime Movie-ready hysterics, Shannon movingly essays a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend and a teacher who is slowly being drained of life, light and joy. It is palpable and heartbreaking.

There are no small parts or small actors here in the supporting cast. Bradley Whitford is in a tough spot but terrific as David’s father Norman, who hasn’t yet accepted his son’s sexuality even a decade after his coming-out but doesn’t love him any less. June Squibb and Paul Dooley could have approached broad caricature as David’s dotty grandparents, but they are poignantly actualized, too. John Early (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), as David’s closest hometown friend Gabe, is down-to-earth and innately charismatic, and 14-year-old J.J. Totah (TV’s “Glee”) is also hilariously expressive as Gabe’s confidently flamboyant younger brother Justin, who puts on an absurdly entertaining Lady Gaga-esque dance performance in his father’s living room.

Feeling too personal to ever fall into mawkish sentimentality, “Other People” isn’t squarely a “cancer movie.” It is all from the perspective of a young man in a state of flux and inserts supporting characters into the main narrative as parts of writer-director Chris Kelly’s slice-of-life tapestry. Though visually straightforward, the film is nevertheless an accurate snapshot of suburbia, refreshingly shot in California’s capital; there is also a subtle shot of a neighborhood park where David and Joanne go for a walk, revealing the progression of newly built homes over twelve months. Also, in a sneaky stroke of genius on Kelly’s part, the recurring sounds of Train’s 2001 single “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)”—much to David’s annoyance each time—comes full circle with supreme poignancy and perfection. Smart, affecting and keenly observed, “Other People” is a note-perfect must-see that makes the viewer feel long and deeply.