Kicking off the Sundance Film Festival is no small feat. Sometimes you leave audiences reeling like the jazz drumming thriller Whiplash did two years ago, while other times, as with last-year’s sports comedy The Bronze, you forget it ever happened. This year though, Sundance started not with a bang, but with uproarious laughter and enough tears to end the drought in California. Writer-director Chris Kelly and producers Adam and Naomi Scott’s Other People earned a standing ovation from the audience (as well as more than a few sniffles), and rightly so — the cancer dramedy is a note-perfect examination of what it’s like to see a family member deal with a life-threatening illness. Anchored by whip-smart writing and a tremendous cast — including a standout, career-best performance by Molly Shannon — Other People set the bar for this year’s Sundance Film Festival nearly as high as the peaks of Park City itself.
If you don’t know Chris Kelly, the writer and director of Other People, you may already know his work; a writer for Broad City and SNL, Kelly is responsible for fan-favorite sketches like “The Beygency” and the Thanksgiving-themed parody of Adele’s “Hello.” Here, though, Kelly stretches his creative muscles to create the semi-autobiographical story of David Mulcahy (played by a terrific Jesse Plemons). A struggling comedy writer in New York City, David moves home to Sacramento to help take care of his mother (Molly Shannon), who is dealing with leiomyosarcoma, a rare and particularly aggressive strain of cancer. To make matters worse, David just broke up with his boyfriend of nearly five years. Though his sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) are supportive of his sexuality, his religious, conservative parents (particularly his father, played by Bradley Whitford) are not, and as such David feels more alienated than ever before.
Feeling adrift in life and marooned in Sacramento, David tries to find solace in reconnecting with his mother as her health rapidly declines. Just as in the Thomas Wolfe novel, it seems that you can’t go home again — especially not after nearly getting a pilot to series on Comedy Central. Yet, David realizes that he must be a rock for his mother as she goes through some truly scary stuff. Seeing a family member deal with a debilitating illness is hard enough, but the feeling of helplessness and inability to heal them yourself can be paralyzing. As David, Plemons perfectly encapsulates this emotional dichotomy, and succinctly summarizes how it feels in an exchange with his childhood friend Gabe (John Early) as they have a heart-to-heart on a playground:
“This feels like something that happens to other people,” David wearily says.
“Yeah, well now you’re other people,” Gabe shoots back.
As the ailing Joanne, Molly Shannon is hauntingly good, running the emotional gauntlet as the mother of three who faces the most difficult and painful ordeal of her life. At one moment, she is jovial and vivacious, radiating with the joy of a parent who is deeply satisfied with her home life and beaming with pride for her children. The next moment, she crumples like a rag doll, seized with pain and sadness, as she struggles with the pains and terrors of chemotherapy. Seeing someone who is clearly such a strong presence and influence on her family so abjectly helpless and, at times, hopeless is harrowing stuff — and Shannon makes it all ring true.
Other People immediately asserts itself with a powerful opening scene of the entire Mulcahey family weeping over Joanne’s body, as she has succumbed to cancer. Their faces contort into ugly caricatures of sorrow and their bodies heave with each fresh sob until the phone rings. And rings. And rings. Until it goes to voicemail, and an ill-informed family friend proceeds to wish Joanne a speedy recovery only to be interrupted by the Taco Bell drive-thru loudspeaker. The movie then flashes back to nearly one year prior, showing us the trials, travails, and triumphs that lead to this devastating moment. This is the tightrope that Kelly walks through the entire film, teetering between hilarity and impossible sadness, and he never falters.
Much like with Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, Other People manages to nimbly toe that line, thanks in no small part to its adroit direction and rock-solid, intensely relatable writing. However, what elevates Other People to best-of status is its cast, who feel as though they could be long-lost members of your own family or people you knew growing up. (Oh, and it must be said that newcomer J.J. Totah completely steals the show as the flamboyantly gay, marble-obsessed fourteen-year-old neighbor). You will laugh with the Mulcaheys, and you will undoubtedly cry with them, but most of all you will be grateful for the time you spent with them. Hopefully, you will never have to become “other people” yourself, but it’s comforting to know that Other People is out there for you in the meantime.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos