After a summer of bloated superhero blockbusters, high-budget franchise reboots and animated food-centric gross-out comedies, it would be understandable if moviegoers retreated to a dark, quiet room to soothe their overworked eyes and eardrums. Sure we had some fun, but when did everything get so bright? Or so LOUD?
“Other People,” written and directed by “Saturday Night Live” and “Broad City” writer Chris Kelly, stands in direct contrast to Brobdingnagian filmmaking with an understated comedy-drama that lives in its quiet moments.
The film follows a year in the life of David (Jesse Plemons), a comedy writer who retreats from his life in New York City to help care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) during her treatment, and then hospice, for an aggressive form of cancer.
In some ways, the trip is a respite. David’s failed to sell the pilot episode of a television show to Comedy Central and he’s gone through a breakup with his longtime boyfriend. But he feels obligated to keep his personal misery secret from his mother in her final months, and he continues to harbor resentments and insecurities over how poorly his coming out was received years earlier.
Over the course of his career, Plemons’ baby face and soft-spoken demeanor have lent him an aura of naivete and detachment that is undeniably compelling, but it’s also typically kept him on the sidelines as a character actor. Those qualities serve him well as the lead of “Other People.” David is an everyman, overwhelmed, saddened and isolated by the inevitability of his circumstances. Plemons plays him as a man humbled by what he perceives as his personal and professional failings, and as someone who’s afraid to share his vulnerabilities with his family.
In contrast, Shannon’s well-practiced charisma is an asset in the film’s first two acts. Joanne lives life as loudly and happily as she can, while she can. But in the third act, Shannon shows incredible range as her character slows and her voice is reduced to a whisper. She’s a dying light, burning brightly before diminishing to the faintest ember.
Other members of the family wind up with very little screen time The movie lingers on David’s missed chances to connect with his sisters (Maude Apetow and Madisen Beaty) but no more than the length of an awkward conversation or two.
The most prominent supporting character is probably David’s father Norman (Bradley Whitford), who nevertheless comes across as flat as a board. We’re told he never accepted David’s sexual orientation, but Whitford plays him as a bottomless well of support, caught up in the role of family caregiver during his wife’s slow march toward death.
David’s past and personality are otherwise filled in by other people in his life, a veritable who’s who of comic actors recognizable from “Broad City,” “The Birthday Boys,” “Parks and Recreation” and more.
The format of the film, demarcating the months of the year as they pass, gives viewers the sense that the narrative is made up of brief moments of intensity floating in a long march toward death. But it also lends the plot a sense of hurriedness, that time is slipping away faster than you’d like.
In the end, the pace gives the movie the quality of a whisper: quiet, quick and demanding of attention, but holding the promise of an important secret.
“Other People” is playing at Sundance Cinemas in Seattle before being released to Netflix video-on-demand.