There have been so many movies made about people dying of cancer; it’s practically become its own genre. Some films are melodramatic almost to the point of glamorizing the disease, as the beautiful stars remain beautiful to their last breaths, spouting tearful platitudes and seeming almost wistful about their imminent demises. Some films are, thankfully, more truthful portrayals of how this all-too common disease absolutely demolishes the lives of anyone it touches. Chris Kelly’s phenomenal debut feature, Other People, not only falls into the latter category, it epitomizes it. In this semi-autobiographical tragicomedy, Jesse Plemons (TVs Fargo, Breaking Bad) plays David, a thirty-year-old New York Based television writer who returns to his hometown of Sacramento to help care for his mother (Molly Shannon, Saturday Night Live, Wet Hot American Summer), who is dying of a rare and particularly aggressive form of skin cancer. David struggles not only to come to terms with his mother’s condition, but also to connect with his younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) and his father (Bradley Whitford, TVs Transparent and The West Wing) who refuses to acknowledge the fact that his son is gay. The title refers to the fact that cancer is the sort of thing that happens to “other people”, only now, they are the other people.
Other People is the sort of movie that I find it hard to recommend, because despite the fact it is an outstanding movie, it will also ruin your day, especially if you’ve seen a loved through terminal cancer. There are moments that are practically unbearable to watch, because of their haunting accuracy. But despite the fact that you will need an entire box of tissues to make it through this movie, there are well-timed moments of levity, preventing the characters from tumbling into the abyss of despair. These moments happen organically as they do in life. A tone-deaf acquaintance interrupts David as he’s telling his friends about his mother’s condition, ignoring the tears in everyone’s eyes and hijacking the conversation with her own “struggles”. David finds his parents in jovial hysterics after having eaten too much pot butter. An amusingly self-assured pre-teen (J.J. Totah) converses with David when he comes to visit his older brother, David’s childhood friend. Later, said pre-teen puts on a risqué, Lady Gaga-esque show stopping number at his dad’s birthday party. Jokey exchanges between characters lighten the mood. David’s grandparents (June Squibb and Paul Dooly) make endearingly off-color comments, as only grandparents can. Molly Shannon’s character, Jo, is herself a hilarious person until she becomes too sick to make jokes.
As he cares for his mother, David also struggles to find a writing job, deals with the aftermath of a long-term relationship, and has an epically disastrous OK Cupid date. Even as his mother’s life is nearing an end, David’s must go on. But he finds it understandably difficult to do anything other than try to process the fact that he is about to lose the only person in his life who loves him unconditionally. His biggest challenge is to figure out how to keep his mother’s memory with him after she is gone. Shannon and Plemons have phenomenal mother/son chemistry and their scenes together are the heart of the film.
The film does end on a slight up-note (as up a note as a movie like this can possibly strike). But you’re going to be ugly-crying until the credits roll. Just be prepared for that. Other People is a truly fantastic film. It’s raw, poignant, hysterical, and so dreadfully authentic. I do hope, for Chris Kelly’s sake, that his next film is inspired by a much nicer life experience.
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