Life sucks, but it’s also a beautiful gift. The universe is brutally cruel, yet also a graceful wonder. People can be infuriating, but they are just as simple and as complex as the sum of their experiences, fears, desires, and burdens. In other words, they’re just like you and me. As much of a contradiction as it may seem, uniqueness is the great human connector – we’re all different, which is what kinda-sorta makes us all the same.
That near-oxymoronic truth of humanity is what makes Other People such a brilliant film title. We live our lives with such a first-person gaze that it’s nearly impossible to escape insularity. Not that we don’t care – we exhibit empathy, care for others, even experience the occasional epiphany about our surroundings – but the nature of being singular people is that we can only experience the world as it revolves around us. It becomes difficult to feel the weight of someone else’s burdens until we experience those burdens for ourselves.
Such is the predicament fledgling comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons) finds himself in as he travels from New York back to his hometown in Sacramento. He’s coming back to do something that was heretofore an “other people” type of endeavor: caring for a parent battling cancer. David’s mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) is about as lively, sardonic, and witty a parent as one could dream of having, and she takes the ominous-but-hazy Rare Cancer diagnosis in the kind of spirited stride that could be categorized as nothing other than “graceful.” The family is a loving support system that functions as a unit, even as individual relationships languish on the sidelines. David’s father (Bradley Whitford) is a patriarchal fussbudget who refuses to accept David’s homosexuality even though he came out a decade earlier. And David himself is so wrapped up in his own personal struggles – a recent breakup, script rejections – that he is neglecting his two sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty), who yearn to take refuge in their sibling bond. The film charts a year in this family’s life, a sort of forced togetherness that initially masks the brewing internal issues and later exposes them.
Other People is the feature directorial debut of SNL writer Chris Kelly, for whom much of this story is autobiographical. The screenplay, also by Kelly, is fascinating in its construction – it orbits around the long-haul cancer battle and is buoyed by a truly special performance by Shannon – and yet it is a character study above all, in which David struggles to reconcile his festering and overwhelming personal struggles while also caring for his increasingly ill mother. It’s a confluence of emotional baggage that might lend itself to grandiose heroics or comic hysterics in a simpler movie, but not here, where the comedy skews closer to the harsh neuroses of real life – pain undercut by the humor of a moment, and moments of overwhelming levity tethered by pain. That doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious; to the contrary, it’s often infectious and occasionally uproarious, with the kind of spark that can only be generated by the combined skill of this writer and these actors. Plemons shoulders the bulk of the film’s weight – both comedically and dramatically – and he’s brilliant at every turn, playing a man adrift in his own selfishness while earnestly trying to be selfless for his ailing mother.
But there again is the quintessential human quandary, trying to be decent and do good even as everyday distractions become nagging obsessions and just when we look away, the framework of our lives threatens to collapse. Tending to crises, navigating tragedies both acute and chronic, coping with grief – the specifics will always vary but the essence remains the same. We’re just small people in this massive, imposing expanse, grasping for those fleeting joys that carry us through the muck – me, you, and all the other people.