OTHER PEOPLE – Sundance ’16 Review

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Jesse Plemons (l) and Molly Shannon in Other People  [Courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly’s debut feature, Other People, premiered at Sundance here in Park City this past Thursday to a polarized audience. The film follows David (Jesse Plemons, Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad), a struggling comedy writer who must come to terms with his faltering New York comedy career while caring for his ailing mother at home in Sacramento. Although David’s interactions with his family and various other Sacramento denizens certainly fill the film with delightful diversions, the core of the film is David’s relationship with his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon of Saturday Night Live fame), the only family member in whom he truly confides. Kelly has carefully perched his film’s tone at the intersection of unbearably awkward and riotously funny, without sacrificing the warmth and heart that its autobiographical skeleton requires.

Shannon and the rest of the cast are without a doubt the film’s most salient, superbly executed element. The naturalistic performances and the slate of hip comedians placed in slightly more serious roles (Zach Woods as David’s earnest, blunt ex-boyfriend, for instance) sells the film on relatability and charm alone. The conversations are all instantly recognizable and familiar, leading some to label the film too “broad.” I felt this a purposeful move on Kelly’s part to build an atmosphere of dull, over-rehearsed malaise in order to heighten the film’s moments of intensity, but I can understand critics’ frustration with these scenes taken too neatly from mundane life.

Due to this perceived lackluster, much of the reaction to the film has focused on its “sketch-comedy caricature” cast of background characters, including an obliviously callous voicemail-leaver, bantering grandparents (including the ever-charming June Squibb), and the flamboyant Justin (J.J. Totah in a scene-stealing performance). In a traditional drama, this two-dimensionality would indeed be a great detriment. However, Kelly makes a larger point about belonging using this intentionally flat gallery of comic reliefs. Suburbia, so often maligned and demonized in indie epics such as Magnolia and American Beauty, is nonetheless home for millions and millions of people, and although it may be filled with annoying, prattling bores, it’s also where most people’s families are from, statistically speaking. So, Kelly invites us to ask, why not embrace it? Why not accept the horrid nightlife and painful high-school-friend encounters and find a way to be authentic in spite of it all?

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 Chris Kelly, Director  [Courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

It is no coincidence that the film moves at the brisk pace of a Parks and Recreation episode – the very same Adam Scott co-produced the film with his wife, lending the piece a certain amount of cred. This puts the film’s one-dimensional, chatty characters in a different light – entertainment for entertainment’s sake in the fast-paced world of millennial attention spans. Just as we’re not shocked to find Tom Haverford virtually unchanged after seven seasons of the aforementioned Parks and Rec, we are none too surprised to find J.J. Totah all of a sudden dancing in drag or the church dad still parading around his gag braces. However fragmented the narrative becomes due to these episodes of eccentricity, we simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

-Avi Ballo

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