Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons in Other People
The “indie cancer dramedy” is a well-established sub-genre populated by films like 50/50, The Fault In Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Terms of Endearment. This is such a specific type of film that if you watch the trailer and think it looks like a fake movie trailer from Saturday Night Live, you would be forgiven because this is exactly the sort of movie that would be parodied on SNL. Which is ironic because Chris Kelly, the writer/director, was recently named the co-head writer of the upcoming season of SNL.
Based loosely on Kelly’s own experience losing his mother to cancer, Other People follows David (Jesse Plemons), a thirty-year-old comedy writer who moves back home when his mother begins chemotherapy. David is at loose ends, personally and professionally—after early success his career has stalled out, and his five-year relationship has ended, though he doesn’t want to tell his family, for fear of worrying his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). He also can’t talk about his relationship because his dad, Norman (Bradley Whitford), still can’t acknowledge his son is gay, ten years after David came out.
David is the focus of the film, which is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because Plemons is wonderful, capturing the doubt and depression that can follow personal and professional setbacks, but also his quiet dedication to his mother. An early scene establishes Joanne as a vibrant woman with a big smile and bigger laugh, and the glue keeping her family, already strained by David’s contentious relationship with his father, together. It’s easy to see why, even with only that one scene for context, David would be so devoted to this woman. And Plemons and Shannon have great chemistry, making the mother-son relationship totally believable.
But the focus on David cuts off other promising avenues which causes Other People to stumble a bit. The beginning is slow, and though the momentum picks up as the movie goes along, the pacing overall is off which makes it inconsistently engaging. Some subplots work, like David trying to date amidst all the emotional trauma in his life, but others don’t, such as David trying to get a job writing for a sitcom. It’s clear early on that David’s professional life is in limbo, so there’s no need to reiterate that point. Time spent on the sitcom job could have gone to David’s relationship with his younger sisters, for instance, or more time with David and Joanne.
Which is the best stuff in the movie. When Other People focuses on David and Joanne it shines, and Kelly nails the complicated emotional stew that comes with care-taking for a parent when you’ve only just begun to be an adult yourself. It’s not as cynical or unflinching as James White, which is also about a self-absorbed white guy dropping everything to care for his ill mother, but Other People puts together enough sincerely good moments to overcome the fake trailer feel. Though it has its moments, it’s not as funny as 50/50, and it’s certainly not as weepy as A Monster Calls. Other People is a solid middle-of-the-pack indie cancer dramedy.
Other People is now available on demand.