The Otherness of Other People

It’s been a good year for Chris Kelly. After five years as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live, he was promoted to co-head writer. His feature film debut, Other People (he wrote and directed), garnered a warm reception at Sundance and won an audience award at Nantucket Film Festival. Netflix recently purchased the film, now in theaters. It’s a marked difference from 2008, when Kelly’s mother was dying of a rare form of cancer, a period that served as the inspiration for the film.

Other People opens to the striking sound of soft cries played over an uncomfortably long black screen before a family comes into focus, piled together in bed and awash in a somber, blue-gray light. David (Jesse Plemons), jettisoned at the foot of the bed, reaches out to grasp the hands of his father and two sisters as they collect atop the lifeless body of his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). A flashback takes us back to a New Year’s Eve party one year earlier, where David participates in strained conversations with his relatives and a lot of eye rolling. He recently abandoned a marginally successful comedy-writing career and an ex-boyfriend in New York City to relocate to his childhood home in Sacramento and care for his mother as she battles advanced leiomyosarcoma. The film follows David during the last year of his mother’s life as he struggles to connect with his homophobic father and his two younger sisters, and to navigate a past he thought he’d escaped.

Other People thrives in the understated and matter-of-fact: David and Joanne’s first scene together establishes a lived-in rapport in just a few exchanges; a once-again-night stand with his ex-boyfriend (Zach Woods, whose eyes have never been kinder) evokes the breezy comfort of two people who know and like each other deeply. It’s in one of these moments that we learn that the “Other People” of the film’s title refers to those whom, according to David, tragic things happen—people other than himself. After a night out, David and his high school friend, Gabe (the fabulous John Early), sit in an abandoned playground. As David asks Gabe what it was like to lose his own mother years earlier, the two occupy opposite ends of the frame. They sit on either side of a play-bridge, the rubber slats between them creating only a short space to cross for David to join his friend on the other side. Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast is peppered with thinly drawn characters (a misused June Squibb as David’s grandmother, for one) that seem to be plucked from an SNL sketch rather than any situation in David’s life.

Kelly shoots his lead through doorframes. We see David in partial view as he occupies the cramped spaces of the home and life he’s outgrown. Keeping David at a distance captures the disconnect he feels between his life in New York and the stagnant world he left behind; only when he hears his mother calling will he dart past the barrier to come to her aid. It’s simple and powerful, but it’s reflective of the distance lodged between the character and the viewer.

Just as we arrive at a fully realized, unembellished moment, Kelly seems to fall back into his sketch comedy comfort zone, breaking the tension he’s skillfully crafted with a joke or gimmick. There are times when it works. When it does, it effectively strikes the balance between the glee and gloom that most other cancer-comedies, that precarious genre au courant, struggle to achieve.  More often, it’s Sisyphean: where he might reward his audience with genuine pathos, he deflects instead. While David’s smug detachment—his arrogance toward his hometown and disdain for former classmates and potential love interests—serves the story, Kelly’s doesn’t. 

This hubris is redeemed, in part, by remarkable performances. Plemons zeroes in on David’s admiration for his mother. The way he places his hand on her shoulder as she weeps in bed or steadies her elbow on a morning walk proves that she is the only force strong enough to pull him across the country. But the height and depth of the film belong squarely to Shannon’s Joanne. Shannon, herself an alumna of Saturday Night Live, takes her signature goofiness down to a low simmer and combines it with a restrained desperation. She carries both the film’s load and its levity, injecting turmoil and vivacity into each heaving sob, silent tear, and playful smile. She gives each emotion equal weight, and in doing so makes a “retirement” party thrown by well-meaning colleagues as painful and devastating as a hospital room crisis. Each moment is tragic and charged, fragile and complex.

After his mother passes, we find David standing for a moment in yet another doorway, watching his father and sisters asleep in his youngest sister’s room. He continues out of the frame before returning again—pillow in hand—stepping deliberately into the room to join his remaining family. It is quiet and poignant, and a testament to Kelly’s acuity for making the mundane meaningful. Let’s hope he can continue to find his way across the threshold.