Sundance 2016 Review: Other People is dramatically powerful but drastically unfunny.
Chris Kelly’s Other People kicked off the 2016 Sundance Film Festival at the Eccles Theater on January 21, 2015. The film which is loosely based on Kelly’s own life, tells the story about a man named David that returns home to help his mother while she is battling cancer. The film stars Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Maude Apatow, and Bradley Whitford,
Its pretty safe to say that after The Bronze opened Sundance in 2015, the 2016 opening night feature had nowhere else to go but up. Other People is a dramedy that opens on a family lying together on a bed crying after a family member dies. While the audience may not know who it is who died this early on, this scene instantly creates a dark shadow that remains over the rest of the film.
It is during this exact scene that Kelly for some unknown reason tries to incorporate comedy via a voice message that plays while the family sobs lying in bed. The voicemail is from a woman calling to check up on the person who just passed while she is at a drive-thru. This moment is suppose to induce laugher but fails to do so.
Throughout Other People, Kelly tries to lighten the mood by adding in moments of humor like the one mentioned above. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of these moments to be funny at all. In fact, the tonal shift from dramatic to comedic didn’t work and seemed out of place more than anything else.
There is only one scene during the film’s entire 97-minute runtime that I found somewhat funny and that was mainly just because it was incredibly awkward. The scene I am referring to features actor J.J. Totah dressed as a female pop star named Justine who is performing a song for his father’s birthday party. Its so weird that you can’t help but laugh at it even if its because you are kind of uncomfortable about it.
Despite 99% of the humor falling flat, the dramatic elements do work for the most part. Shannon and Plemons deliver some raw performances that serve as some of the film’s strongest attributes. Both of these actors seem to understand that their story relies heavily on the chemistry with one another while relying on each of them to demonstrate a wide range of emotion.
Best known for her comedic sketches on SNL, Molly Shannon proves just how strong of a dramatic actress she can be by taking on this role. Shannon’s character Joanne is a well-rounded person that is shown going through various stages of cancer while trying to be a loving mother and supportive wife. While this subject matter has been done over and over again, I do have to admit that the rawness of Shannon’s performance is one of the best of her career.
As for Plemons, he plays a rather complicated character thanks to all the layers that Kelly’s script gives him. David is a gay struggling writer that is going through a rough patch with his long-term boyfriend. When he learns about his mother’s illness, he must return home and deal with his mother’s illness while his father won’t even acknowledge the fact that he is gay. It is within these struggles that audience members will begin to relate to and root for David. Plemons turns David into this strong willed man that tries his best to keep it together. He is not a selfish person but rather one who puts others first. Because of this, the moment when David breaks down is all the more powerful.
While there are several standout moments throughout, the strongest moment is a scene between David and Joanne lying on a bed together. During this scene, Joanne begins to tell David that when she’s gone and he begins to miss her that he should come back to Sacramento and see his sisters as they will always be a part of her. This moment felt authentic while being incredibly touching. While I personally didn’t shed any tears while watching the film, those around me at the Sundance premiere were in tears.
The rest of the cast is serviceable but nothing about any of them really stood out besides the fact that everyone was likable in their role. I will give Kelly a lot of credit for casting primarily comedic actors to be in dramatic roles and giving them a chance to prove that they have what it takes to go against typecasting. I don’t think anyone besides Plemons, Shannon, and Totah will be mentioned when this film does get a release but I will say that acting all around was solid.
All in all, I enjoyed the dramatic elements of Other People but really disliked almost every moment where the film tried to get a laugh. I do think this is a decent first feature for Chris Kelly and believe audiences will like the film overall for the most part. One of my pet peeves about the film as a whole was that it felt was a bit too “Sundance.” After going to the festival for four years in a row now, you kind of see some of the same types of films playing year after year and Other People is one of those films. Other People is not a bad film by any means but the inconsistent tones really took me out of the story and hurt the film from being a hard-hitting family drama.
MovieManMenzel’s final rating for Other People is a 6 out of 10.