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Other People, written and directed by Chris Kelly, is a decent drama that’s ultimately brought down by tonal inconsistency and a lackluster resolution.
David (Jesse Plemmons) is a struggling writer that returns to his hometown of Sacramento to care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), who is slowly dying from cancer. The movie unfolds over the course of one year, as David’s life slowly and completely unravels because of overwhelming stress.
Joanne’s death bookends the film and the opening scene establishes one of Other People’s main problems right away – an inconsistent mood. Given the morbidity of the subject matter, mood whiplash is to be expected, but a lot of the early scenes in Other People, as some sequences later on, have bits of comedy that are just jarring when juxtaposed with the rest of what’s going on. Levity and drama are sometimes locked in a state of mutually assured destruction that only leaves an awkward sense of discomfort in its wake.
Fortunately, the latter half of the movie does not suffer from that and there are also plenty of times when mood whiplash is used effectively, with Joanne’s slowly deteriorating condition undercutting moments of joy in a much more grounded and believable way. One of the highlights of the movie is easily an awkward conversation about funeral arrangements that effortlessly switches from morbidly amusing to heartbreaking. Molly Shannon delivers a gutwrenchingly powerful performance, to the point where it’s almost a shame Other People focuses more on David than on her.
David’s writing career is at a dead end, his dating life is a mess, he’s estranged from his family, particularly his father (Bradley Whitford), who’s homophobic and still hasn’t come to terms with David being gay – all of this on top of his mother’s illness turns him into a ticking time tomb that, predictably, goes off at one point. Plemons brings the right balance of awkward charm buried under constantly mounting pressure to the role.
Unfortunately, Other People is a bit unfocused with regards to David’s growth as a person and a character. The movie introduces the various disparate elements that are going wrong with his life, but by time the story reaches its end, only some of those threads have found meaningful resolution.
He confronts his father over the latter’s homophobia and past transgressions and has a very moving heart-to-heart with his mother before her passing, but the questions regarding his career, love life and even relationship with his sisters are left frustratingly open-ended. The movie’s closing moments want to make the audience think David’s reached some state of equilibrium in his life and that things will get better, but there a lot of key beats that are missing there.
At the very least, the movie feels like it’s missing an epilogue that shows how the family is coping after some time has passed. Beginning and ending with death of Joanne gives her character a complete narrative arc and a sense of closure that Other People does not provide to David, who is a very important main character in his own right.
The end result is a movie that certainly has a heart, but lacks a sense of direction and is also hampered by some jarring tonal inconsistencies early on. The comedy is hit and miss and while the drama packs an emotional punch, the ending is unsatisfying.