In the first big scene of writer-director Chris Kelly’s debut feature “Other People,” a young, gay New York comedy writer named David (played by Jesse Plemons) navigates his way through his family’s New Year’s Eve party back in his hometown of Sacramento. One-by-one, he walks past relatives and acquaintances who don’t really understand what he does for a living—or his sexuality—and who pepper him with dumb jokes and useless advice. Then he goes upstairs to see his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), who has a rare form of cancer, and only about a year left to live. David’s mom is cool and funny, and rolls her eyes at what’s happening down in her den. From the way David beams at her, it’s immediately clear that for his whole life, she’s been his confidante and role model, in a world full of simpletons.
It’s also clear from that scene that Kelly doesn’t have an especially generous perspective on ordinary folks—which is to say, anyone who’s not David or Joanne. Later in “Other People,” David’s family takes a trip to New York, so that his mom can see him perform with his improv troupe at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s performing space, and for the first time in the movie, characters other than the hero and his dying mom are allowed to be likable. That’s probably because they’re New Yorkers… which means they’ve automatically passed whatever hipness test “Other People” is administering.
To be fair to Kelly, his film is largely about David coming to appreciate that there are people worth knowing in Sacramento too. “Other People” takes place over the course of the last year of Joanne’s life, as she first suffers through treatments and then decides to let nature take its course, saying as many goodbyes as she can before her body shuts down. But the movie‘s really about David, who as the story begins has just broken up with his longtime boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods), and has just seen his highly touted Comedy Central pilot deal come to nothing. Living back among non-showbiz-types—who don’t even know what “series pick-up” means—David feels abandoned and lonely, and depressed that he’s about to lose his mom and be left only with a dad (Bradley Whitford) who still won’t acknowledge that his son is gay. David has younger sisters too, whom he pretty much ignores—even as they’re practically begging to be closer to him—and he has dotty grandparents (played by June Squibb and Paul Dooley) who love him unconditionally, but who he finds square and silly.
The cast is the film’s strongest suit. Plemmons and Shannon do some of the best work of their respective careers; Kelly surrounds them with an impressive roster of comic and dramatic actors, who bring life even to scenes where their characters are living down to David’s worst preconceptions. Like his protagonist, Kelly has spent his twenties working in improv, and writing for shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “Broad City,” and so his comedic impulses tend toward the goofy and easy to grasp—which would be insufferable if the performers weren’t so game.
Kelly also sensitively draws on his personal experiences, most notably in a sex scene between David and Paul that depicts gay lovemaking with a casualness and unselfconsciousness rarely seen in dramedies like this. “Other People” is freely littered with these kinds of moments, where some aspect of cancer, writing, or being gay is dealt with refreshingly straightforwardly. (The handful of scenes featuring a fabulously gay preteen played by J.J. Totah are all standouts.)
Nevertheless, the end result is awfully sketchy, more a collection of ideas and memories than a proper film. Kelly relies whenever possible on visual cues to fill in the characters’ backstories, and yet “Other People” is still a very talky movie, with a lot of rehashing of the past to bring the audience up to speed. Kelly’s dominant storytelling mode is the monologue, which he sometimes uses to fine effect—as when Joanne tells one of her favorite anecdotes, to set up a moment later when she becomes too weak and whispery to do the story justice. But more often, the plain style and rambling conversations feel like the case of a first-time writer-director neglecting the cinematic.
Plus, although David gradually warms to his family and even (a little bit) to Sacramento, the broadness and meanness of the early parts in “Other People” linger in the air like a sour stench. In the movie’s most touching scene, Joanne watches a family wedding via Skype, and struggles to keep up with the mass of people on her laptop screen, all crowding into the frame to talk to her. These are the same relatives who were such dopes at the start of the film; and their wit and taste hasn’t improved. Their cartoonishness undercuts a lot of the moment’s bittersweet feeling.
Like last year’s Sundance breakout “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Other People” is ultimately a cancer dramedy about the life lessons learned by someone other than the patient—where one person suffers for someone else’s enlightenment. And that’s fine. That happens. But the title of the film is intended as an admonishment to the hero, reminding him that he’s not the only one who’s handling a lot of baggage, and that Other People deserve his respect and compassion. While David may be starting to get that message by the end of the movie, Kelly—at least judging by who he makes fun of and how—isn’t there yet. [C+]