Is Chris Kelly’s Other People this year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? That’s the question you’ll see too many people pose based on family resemblance, though the answer is a straightforward “no.” Don’t fault them for making that leap—the internal logic is solid. Both movies found a stage at Sundance, both inhabit the “cancer dramedy” niche, and neither is especially new or innovative. Beginners, Funny People and 50/50 predate them by years and change. They also happen to be better movies overall (though it doesn’t take more than some actors and a camera to be better than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).
The major difference between that film and Other People is that the latter is good and the former is execrably selfish. Other People indulges its own narcissism, too, being the story of David Mulcahy (Jesse Plemons), a young man on the cusp of his 30s who takes a break from his urbane New York City lifestyle and his exciting career as a struggling comedian to take care of his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), back home in San Diego. Joanne has leiomyosarcoma, which in her case is sort of like saying the Great Barrier Reef has started bleaching. Her condition is advanced enough that her eldest child decides to fly cross-country to be by her side. You figure it out.
Shannon, incidentally, plays a part in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, too, in the same way that everyone in the cast who isn’t Thomas Mann plays a part. She’s scenery. In Other People, she’s much closer to being the literal star, and her tremendous performance establishes her as the film’s main attraction. Joanne isn’t the center of Kelly’s story, mind you. David is. But Kelly actually gives a shit about his protagonist’s relationships with his secondary characters. Interplay between Plemons and Shannon becomes key to the movie’s narrative. They have real familial chemistry that lets them bond on screen as we watch. You can give Kelly side-eye for making a movie about the effects cancer has on healthy people instead of people who have cancer, but you can’t call him callous.
Cancer patients have stories to tell, after all, but so do their kids. By couching Other People in David’s life, Kelly has constructed a reflection of his own: He’s currently co-head writer on Saturday Night Live, a position David would kill for, and seven years ago he lost his own mother to cancer, too. Take the film as his attempt at performing open cathartic surgery with a dose of self-rebuke. Kelly is ballsy enough to identify David’s self-pitying as egotism instead of treating it as a quirk. It sucks to lose someone you love to the ravages of disease, but that doesn’t make you less of a prick for pushing everyone else in your life away. (For some, that won’t assuage the presumption of Other People’s gaucheness, but they’re probably pricks, too.)
Grant that David doesn’t have many people in his life he’s comfortable being close to. His California homecoming is prickly in addition to being gutting: He’s openly gay and on shaky terms with his dad, Norman (Bradley Whitford, the only person on Earth who can joke about pulling the plug on his dying wife and make it funny), distant with his sisters, Alexandra and Rebeccah (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty), and amicably intolerant of his extended family (including his grandparents, played by June Squibb and Paul Dooley), plus his former neighbors and classmates. Only Joanne and his buddy Gabe (John Early) put him at ease. Everyone else puts him on alert, from his ex-boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) to the grocery bagger he knew in high school, who tries to support David for coming out (10 years too late) and winds up with his foot in his mouth.
No wonder David keeps his cards close to his chest. He’s a stranger in the place he grew up. Kelly uses that smirking cynicism to color Other People’s various turmoils in varyingly bitter shades. The film begins in Sunset Boulevard mode as David, Norman, Rebeccah and Alexandra crowd around Joanne in bed moments after she passes away. It’s Kelly’s way of letting us know he isn’t screwing around, and also that he’s a-okay with using humor as a blunt force instrument: They weep, they choke, they say their goodbyes, and then the phone rings its way to voicemail. We hear the caller recording her message from a Taco Bell drive-through, blithely unaware of her trespass upon their collective grief. That’s a gag line, of course, but Kelly invites us to laugh mostly so we don’t gawp.
Other People has problems, none of which have anything to do with perspective. Chiefly it needs more Plemons and Shannon, less Plemons flying solo. They’re a wonderful pair, to say nothing of the fact that David does an awful lot of lonesome meandering for a guy looking after his ailing mom. It isn’t that Plemons is bad by himself. It’s that the material is fickle in composition and pacing. Watching David mope works in small batches. When the film overemphasizes his ennui, it drags (as in an awkward date that starts poorly and goes downhill in a deluge of vomit). But Other People’s weaknesses don’t undermine its strengths, embodied by its cast’s interactions and its keen, real-world sense of observation.
A cheaper movie would find a treacly lesson in Joanne’s passing, but Kelly acknowledges that there are no lessons in death. His work is affecting and thoughtful without engineering fake epiphanies. It’s the kind of film with perspective that can only be derived from personal experience rather than artifice.
Director: Chris Kelly
Writer: Chris Kelly
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, John Early, Zach Woods, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, June Squibb
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.