It’s a brave thing to do, to open with your ‘big moment’. It leaves no room for romanticism, no room for escape, no room for the ‘what if’ and it tells an audience that the Hollywood magic that has saved countless lives before now, will not be present here today. Other People opens with its ‘big moment’ as a family, all in tears, lay on a bed around their sick mother as she dies. And then, just as an answer machine message plays, in a brilliant moment of dark humour, we are taken to a party a year ago.
The party seems like a normal one, like one I’m sure I’ve been to (except for the two friends who bring guitars and amps to perform. My family aren’t that musical). As everyone asks where Joanne is, there’s a sense of trepidation. There’s some veiled discussion of her ilnness becasue everyone knows Joanne is sick (though it’s not clear to them that what the audience has just seen will happen). They ask David, the films lead character, what his plans are and he has to fend off questions that everyone gets when they go home.
When you finally see Joanne, in the bathroom, applying makeup and dressed in a sequined seventies inspired outfit, there’s almost a sense of relief. She shares a story about where the dress came from. You fall in love with her instantly and you know, there and then, that this film is going to break your heart.
Other People, written and directed by Chris Kelly (SNL, Broad City) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 and garnered a lot of buzz. It’s star, Molly Shannon, gained rave reviews, and it was picked up by Netflix for an international release. The film paints an inspired portrait of a family in the midst of their mother’s illness. At the centre is the family’s matriarch, Joanne (Shannon), who shines as a woman so full of passion and life dealing with her own mortality. And then, her gay son, David (played by Jesse Plemmons), whose life is in flux. He’s working on spec-scripts, his relationship is ending, and he can’t quite see what’s next for him. In one scene, at Sacramento’s only gay bar, David vents to a friend about his anxiety with all the uncertainty. He says, ‘It all just feels like something that happens to other people.’ To which is friend, played by the brilliant John Early, says, ‘Yeah, well, now you’re other people to other people.’
The performances in Other People are some of the best of 2016. Shannon won an Independent Spirit Award and was robbed of an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Joanne. Plemmon’s similarly shines as an introverted young man, unable to process things. When he says, ‘I just want my mom to die thinking I’m doing okay.’ I couldn’t hold back tears. There’s also an exceptionally talented supporting cast, and a That fill this world with real people, people that you know and that you’ve had awkward encounters with. There also needs to be a special shoutout to J.J. Totah as the fabulous young kid, Justin.
The beauty of Other People though, to me, lies in its normality. It manages to avoid the pitfalls of oversentimentality to present what it’s actually like to grapple with losing a parent. As someone that has lost a parent to cancer, this film hit incredibly close to home. The way Kelly, who makes his feature film debut here as both writer and director, presents this illness as a part of their everyday life was particularly astute. When David comes home and Joanne is throwing up into a bin, it doesn’t feel like the first time that’s happened, and it won’t be the last.
What Kelly also does so expertly, is capture the highs and lows of a person dealing with terminal illness; because there are, contrary to popular belief, highs. The scene after David’s improv show, when Joanne tells a story about a boy in her class, and you can see joy radiate from her is one of those highs. She’s in her element; she is so full of life. Then, moments later, David tells his friends she’s stopped chemo and, as they all come to realise what that means, they’re interrupted by an old aquatenince. As they hold back tears, this girl keeps talking over it. This is one of the lows. This scene broke my heart, as did so many moments in this film, because Other People is a film that feels wholeheartedly true.
The film is based on Kelly’s real life experience, and he has channelled that into creating a beautiful piece of cinema that explores the nuances of a family dealing with illness. At its core it’s about a mother and her son, in a broader sense it addresses sexuality, parenting, death, and more. As a gay man who has lost his parents to cancer I found Other People to be such a cathartic experience. And, though I can’t say what my reaction would have been had my own life not mirrored this cinematic one, I can say that Other People is a film that you should see. No, Other People is a film you HAVE to see.
Other People is availble to stream on Netflix now.