Other People *****
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, June Squibb
Director: Chris Kelly
It's difficult to rationalise the impact someone has on your life until they've gone. Harder still, it's difficult to comprehend exactly what this will mean before it even happens, especially if they're a parent. Everyone has to deal with the loss of a parent at some point in their lives, but when this occurs early, especially if it's both slow and painful, I don't think anybody really knows how they would react. Other People, a black comedy from Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, explores exactly how someone can deal with the impending doom of this painfully sluggish misery.
Joanne (Shannon) is dying of cancer. Her son David (Plemons) has returned home from New York to help care for her. He decides not to tell anyone that he has broken up with his boyfriend of five years, keeping all his pain bottled up inside him as he struggles to reconnect with the rest of his family. His father (Whitford) has never been able to deal with his sexuality, politely refusing to engage with anything that refers to it, so as his mother's health deteriorates, David has to come to terms with the idea that he is going to left without a parent he can connect with.
Plemons gives a nuanced performance as David, depicting a mild-mannered young man whose temperament is tested to breaking point. Known for his intense performance in Breaking Bad, Plemons shows real versatility here, both looking and performing like a young Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The smile he has plastered on his face shows real cracks, while his brief moments of anger voice his deep-felt objections to his collection of problems. Shannon, also, delivers a tour-de-force as Joanne, trying her best to remain positive as her body slowly shuts down. A fantastic comedic actress, this is a bold dramatic performance that explores every aspect of how we would deal with this cataclysmic prognosis. At times broken, at times reticent, she shows us the full spectrum of grief at the loss of her own life. Which is often too painful to watch when she knows what she is leaving behind.
Kelly's script is beautifully tender, finding comedy in the darkest of places but without ever feeling exploitative. Like the work of Alan Ball, he finds ridiculousness in their suffering, where the characters are unable to laugh because of their grief, but allowing us to laugh from our armchairs. From the opening shot, in which the family are forced to listen to a painfully awkward voicemail message as they lie weeping with their dead mother, the whole film is a series of funny anecdotes as we skip through the highlights and lowlights of Joanne's final ten months. From saying goodbye to the woman who has replaced her at work, to the pain of watching her daughter get married on Skype, the film manages to find horrific humour that makes for viewing that really makes you squirm. And though we watch David really unravel, exposing him warts-and-all, it doesn't make us like him any less. If anything, it makes us care for him all the more.
While obviously a film about loss, this is also a film about dealing with problems you thought long buried. David had walked away from his life in Sacramento over a decade ago without expecting ever to have to return. He thought that he would never actually have to deal with the issues he has with his father because he'd packed up his life and walked away. Other People goes to show that issues that aren't dealt with will almost certainly rear their ugly heads later, especially if you're talking about sexuality. The film explores exactly the reasons LGBT people have to deal with all the issues their sexuality sparks, either for themselves or their families, because otherwise they run the risk of being haunted by them for the rest of their lives. David had compartmentalised them because at least he had his mother to counteract them... but what happens for him when that ceases to be the case? This is the question that underpins the entire movie.
While a slow-burner, Kelly's comedic pedigree ensures for a sharply written film in which laugh-out-loud comedy softens the heavy blows of heartstring plucking. The term "black comedy" was invented for films like this, especially when executed so well. A Netflix must-watch for sure.
Out now on DVD, On Demand and on Netflix.