“Other People,” a highly affecting Sacramento-set tragi-comedy written and directed by Sheldon High School alumnus Chris Kelly, takes its title from a remark its lead character, David (Jesse Plemons, from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) makes to a friend.
David is a New York comedy writer who returns to his hometown to help care for his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). Joanne is dying of cancer – something David thought only happened to “other people,” he says.
The title will assume deeper meaning as the film, released theatrically in September and now streaming on Netflix, unfolds. David, a kind, funny guy, only has eyes for his kind, funny mother’s pain. And for his own, as he confronts his mother’s illness, a recent breakup with his boyfriend and once again sharing the family tract home (Los Angeles stands in for Sacramento) with his father (Bradley Whitford), who does not accept his son’s sexuality.
David does not seem to understand that other people in his family – his sisters and dad, who is deeply flawed but devoted to his sick wife – are as devastated as he. Instead of reaching out, David, to whom Plemons lends equal measures of grief, frustration and innate politeness, internalizes the trauma of watching his mother weaken.
His sister eventually calls David on his tunnel vision. But Joanne already has planted the seeds for him to appreciate the people who will be left, once she dies. When David says he wishes they could go see the world during the time she has left, Joanne says her whole world will be at the dinner table that evening. All she wanted was to be a mother, she says in a moment that could have been Hallmark-cloying were it not so well acted. (Shannon, Plemons and Kelly are up for Independent Spirit Awards.)
Shannon gives Joanne a baseline of sadness, but adds grace and an eagerness to wring whatever joy she can from her life. Though Shannon’s post-“Saturday Night Live” career has been quieter than some of her colleagues’, Shannon bests them all in acting range.
Kelly, now co-head writer at “SNL,” mostly stays away from gallows humor. He separates sad sequences from more comedic material like David’s visit to a local gay bar. David had anticipated a Sacramento gay bar would be be pathetic, and the one we see on screen is just that. (He obviously was not at Faces, which has a swimming pool, for goodness’ sake.)
The film eventually lets us see right through David’s attempts to feel superior to his hometown because he’s become a fancy New Yorker. David’s issue is not with Sacramento but the sadness now attached to it.
Streaming on Netflix