Writer-director James C. Strouse’s first two films, “The Winning Season” and the John Cusack vehicle “Grace Is Gone” both explore fatherhood, but Strouse never seemed to find a way make his dramatic interests succeed in a narrative form. Now going as Jim Strouse, has finally discovered his groove with his latest project, “People, Places, Things.”
Anchored by a stellar cast and a hilarious script, Strouse balances dramatic elements with quick-witted comedy. The heart of the film is the performance of Jermaine Clement (“Flight of The Concords”) as Will Henry, a depressed graphic novelist and single father trying to put his life back together after catching his wife cheating on him with Gary (Michael Chernus), a monologist, on his twin daughter’s birthday.
A year later, Will is living a small Queens apartment, expressing his anguish through his drawings. His ex-wife Charlie (Stephanie Allayne) is pregnant getting married to Gary. His relationship with his daughters has been restricted to weekends, and his depression has slowly leaked into his job as teacher at a college. Wanting to have a bigger part in his children’s lives, and to limit Gary’s involvement in it, he asks for more time from Charlie and receives that chance when Charlie takes up an improv class. It soon becomes apparent that Will might have bit off more than he can chew, as he struggles to adjust to his daughters’ hectic, overbooked schedules while handling his own workload.
One of his students, Cat (“The Daily Show” rising star Jessica Williams), invites him to dinner with her literature professor mother Diane (the marvelous Regina Hall). While they initially get off on the wrong foot, they eventually start a promising relationship. However, Will remains hung up on his relationship with Charlie, and strives to keep his family together for his kids’ sake.
Despite the formulaic setup, “People, Places and Things” benefits from first-rate writing and stellar performances. Will could have been just another goofy male lead in a romantic comedy if it weren’t for the convincing and highly agreeable ingredients that Clement brings to the table. His comedic timing and offbeat delivery has never been better, but he also introduces a sense of authenticity that enables the story to take a serious turn. There’s a palpable sweetness to his interactions with daughters that grounds the movie in an emotional foundation.
Stephanie Allayne also excels as Charlie, Will’s conflicted ex-wife, who still manages to be empathetic and sweet even though she’s the source of Will’s misery. Tragic yet redeemable, her character leaves the audience just as conflicted as Will. Hall is another unexpected surprise — a perfect complement to Clement’s irreverent delivery. She manages to balance her comedic delivery with undeniable sincerity. Their complimentary onscreen chemistry ranks as some of the best seen in a romantic comedy in some time.
Shot in intimidate locations throughout New York, the film maintains a grounded, personal feel. It’s held together by beautiful artwork that serves as both a coping mechanism for Will and insight into his unspoken feelings, as he feels a wall is being built between him and his family. Ceaselessly entertaining, witty, and sentimental, “People, Places, Things” speaks to many sensibilities at once.
“People, Places and Things” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.