D: Chris Kelly / 97m
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, John Early, Zach Woods, Paul Dooley, June Squibb
Twenty-nine year old David Mulcahey (Plemons) is an aspiring comedy writer living in New York who decides to return home to Sacramento when his mother, Joanne (Shannon), is diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a form of cancer involving malignant tumours. Adopting the role of her primary carer at home, David tries to support his mother while dealing with a variety of issues in his own life, from the disappointment of a pilot TV show he’s written not being optioned, to the break up of his relationship of five years with Paul (Woods), to the continuing homophobia displayed by his otherwise loving father, Norman (Whitford), and his own doubts as to whether or not he’ll be able to cope “when the time comes”. Over the course of a year, David sees at first hand the struggle his mother has to maintain a semblance of normal life, and the efforts she makes to remain a caring mother to David and his two sisters, Alexandra (Apatow) and Rebeccah (Beaty), while negotiating the trials of funeral planning, quitting chemotherapy, and preparing for the inevitable…
Loosely based on writer/director Kelly’s own experiences with his mother’s death from cancer, Other People is a sobering yet darkly humorous movie that treats the subject of cancer with unflinching honesty while also showing that it doesn’t have to mean that life can’t continue, especially for those who are ill. It also avoids the clichés that come with this particular territory in movies, showing the various stages that Joanne experiences as she comes to terms with her cancer, but in a way that isn’t patronising or condescending. Several times we see David and Joanne taking a walk in their local park, and each occasion acts as a barometer for Joanne’s current state of health, Kelly using this cinematic shorthand to avoid big speeches or teary confessions. It’s one of many ways that the script makes subtle declarations about Joanne’s health, and about cancer in general. As a result, when it is referred to directly, it’s something of a surprise, though a welcome one at that; there shouldn’t be any avoidance of the topic at hand. And no one is shown to be particuarly brave. Instead, Kelly has everyone finding it difficult to adjust to the idea of a loved one dying, something that rings true throughout, as well as David’s reticence to talk about his own problems, and everyone else’s dismay and confusion.
In amongst the main narrative thread of Joanne’s illness, issues concerning the rest of her family crop up quite often, from David’s inability to recognise that his sisters need his support as well, to the sad acceptance of Joanne’s parents (Dooley, Squibb) that they’re going to lose their only child. Kelly sidesteps any potential melodrama by keeping things simple, and by ensuring that any histrionics are kept to a minimum, saving it all for a scene in a supermarket where David can’t find the laxatives that are on a shelf right in front of him. Plemons, who gives the kind of break out performance he’s always been capable of, perfectly captures the despair, anger and panic that being on the verge of losing his mother is causing him. Kelly is also on firm ground when dealing with David’s homosexuality, planting the seeds for Norman’s discomfort in the family’s conservative religious background, but without being explicit about it. Much is left unacknowledged – verbally at least – but the script makes it clear how each character is feeling, and the family dynamic is well thought out and developed. And to cap it all off, Shannon is simply tremendous as Joanne: funny, angry, sad, but interestingly, never hopeful for herself, another thing that Kelly gets absolutely, completely right.
Rating: 8/10 – the subject matter may sound off-putting, but even though Other People pulls no punches, there’s a streak of black comedy that runs throughout the movie and helps the leaven the drama; Plemons and Shannon give career best performances, and Kelly (making his feature debut) shows the kind of promise that means his next project should receive plenty of deserving attention.