Grief is a permanent part of the human experience. It can range from the loss of an important person to the loss of some personal belonging. The way a person grieves is as varied as the things they can grieve over. Grieving is not exclusive to having lost something, because it can manifest during the process of inevitably losing it. Other People uses subtle humor to explore grief and loss in a way that is both respectful and impactful.
The film opens by telling you exactly how it is going to end. There is no guessing, no will she/won’t she baiting or any other type of cheap misdirection. To begin a film by revealing its ending is a major gamble, but this ambitious film is willing to go for broke with this risky filmmaking move in hopes that it will come out more emotionally rewarding. It hit the cinematic jackpot. We are meant to know exactly how it ends because the entire film is about the main character’s journey in coming to terms with the inevitable fate of his mother. This places us in the perfect position to experience everything as the main character is going through it.
Writer and director Chris Kelly delivers a thoughtful, if sometimes jumbled, piece of dramedy for his first feature film. Mostly autobiographical, he tells the story of his mom’s terminal illness and his continued career failings. Through David (Jesse Plemons), Kelly explores the ideas of sexuality, grief, family, narcissism, and loss. Even with several humorous and lightening moments, the film’s tone rarely deviates from an ever-present note of melancholy. The problem occurs when it does try to deviate, like introducing a side story or two that doesn’t ever connect with the rest of the film and comes off as mostly a distraction.
The film’s strength lies inside the character development and the complex relationships between them. The anchor guiding Other People is, in fact, only one person: Jesse Plemons. Although Molly Shannon plays a huge part in the film’s success, it’s overall fluidity comes from Plemons’s performance bringing to life Kelly’s words. Plemon is about to handle the complex emotions required for this role while remaining down to earth and relatable. I just want to clarify that when I say relatable, I don’t mean just his “everyman” embodiment. As a gay man all too familiar with returning to his hometown, he could not have been more accurate in his portrayal.
Molly Shannon is known for her over-the-top comedic characters and complete disregard for character nuance. Her role as Joanne, a mother with terminal cancer, shows us a side of Shannon that makes her almost unrecognizable to the actress we have come to know as comic relief at best. Starting with last year’s acclaimed indie film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, we have seen glimpses of Shannon straddling the fence that separates comedy and drama, but never fully shedding her comedic skin long enough to don a dramatic disguise. In Other People, she shows the breadth of her experience and it shines through as she tackles on her toughest role yet. Shannon’s performance is endearing and poignant, delivering flares of subtle comedy that strengthen the overall tone of the film.
Jean-Paul Satre said it best, “Hell is other people.” Other People perfectly embodies this sentiment while making sure that we know even the main character isn’t exempt from this statement. A tragedy brings out the best and the worst in people, creating an infernal experience for all. Chris Kelly forces us to confront the parts of our lives that we hate the most and to make peace with them before it is too late. He does this so masterfully that he even manages to turn the loathful Train song, “Drops of Jupiter”, into an acceptable, if not beautiful, ending note for the film.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)