"Other People" is beautiful in every way, an incisively funny drama accomplishing the Herculean task of eliciting comfort even as it breaks one's heart. First-time feature writer-director Chris Kelly (a writing supervisor on "Saturday Night Live") introduces himself as a born filmmaker, one who has arrived fully formed with his own unforced, acerbic sensibilities and adept emotional grace. The story of a terminally ill mother (Molly Shannon) and the grown son (Jesse Plemons) who comes home to assist his family in caring for her may sound similar to 1998's Meryl Streep/Renee Zellweger weeper "One True Thing" at best and a maudlin Hallmark Channel movie at worst, but Kelly finds such unblinking intimacy and truth in his every moment it never becomes anything other than its own lovely, singular entity.
29-year-old David (Jesse Plemons) is a struggling New York-based writer nursing the wounds of a failed Comedy Central pilot and his recent breakup with longtime boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods). He has returned to his suburban Sacramento hometown to help care for mom Joanne (Molly Shannon) following a devastating cancer diagnosis, but being back under the roof of a conservative dad, Norman (Bradley Whitford), who has yet to accept his sexuality ten years after coming out rustles to the surface a host of unresolved feelings and resentments. David is scared of losing his mother and also afraid of painting anything other than a deceptive picture of personal and professional success for her. Hardworking but floundering, he is at a crossroads without a map. When he tells longtime friend Gabe (John Early) he thought things like losing a parent to cancer only happened to other people, Gabe (who knows intimately about parental loss) informs him he is the "other people" now.
"Other People" may be the first film in memory to leave me teary-eyed 30 seconds in and laughing by the one-minute mark. The film is miraculous like that, earning catharses through its accuracy, forthrightness and empathy of tough subject matter. Writer-director Chris Kelly offers comedic levity without so much as a strain, his characters and their identifiable situations ringing resoundingly true. It is difficult to continuously label Jesse Plemons (2015's "Black Mass
") as a revelation with each new role he takes on, but it is once again warranted; he is exceptionally moving as a young man who has never felt fully understood by his family and cannot bear losing his biggest supporter.
With Joanne, fighting to put on a brave face for David and daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty) while staring squarely at her own mortality, Molly Shannon (2015's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
") has found what may be the most challenging part of her career. Shannon is pitch-perfect, giving complex layers of vulnerability and strength to a woman who knows she hasn't much time left and wants to tie up all loose ends--including the guilt she feels over not immediately being there for David all those years ago when he initially came out. For a husband and father who should have a whole new perspective for how precious time with loved ones is, Bradley Whitford's (2013's "Saving Mr. Banks
") Norman still is unable to come to terms with his son being gay; as much as he puts on a smiling face, this stubborn sticking point has puts a distance between them. In one great scene, exquisitely played by Plemons and Whitford, David finally confronts his dad about the elephant in the room, to which Norman responds he is willing to debate it further. "There's nothing to debate!" David replies with exasperation, crestfallen that his father can clearly love him and yet not fully accept him for who he innately is.
"Other People" works sublimely in tandem as a character study, a familial slice-of-life, and a mother-son love story. Each supporting player, right down to the smallest ones, are affectingly realized, from June Squibb (2015's "Love the Coopers
") and Paul Dooley (2009's "Sunshine Cleaning
") as Joanne's parents, dealing in their own way with their daughter's sickness; to Zach Woods (2015's "Spy
") as David's ex Paul, the two of them holding onto love for each other in spite of the dissolution of their relationship; to John Early, a down-to-earth find as David's hometown friend Gabe; to scene-stealer J.J. Totah, an unstoppable comedic force as Gabe's unapologetically flamboyant little brother Justin. The heart of the film, however, lies with David, who wants to know he still has a place to come home to when his mom is gone, and Joanne, who holds onto her dignity even as her body starts to shut down. The recurring use of Train's 2001 rock ballad "Drops of Jupiter," initially as a running gag and then, ultimately, as an emblem of loss, resiliency and life itself, proves transcendent. "Other People" is one of the most deeply touching films to come around in quite some time.