By Chris Feil
You may think you have seen films like this year's Sundance competitor Other People, what with its dark humor and disease-based family melodrama (and maybe more than a few coming from Sundance itself). Jesse Plemons stars as David, a struggling comedy writer returning home from New York to care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon, at her most natural) as she fights a losing battle against nerve cancer. David's relationship with his family is stunted by lingering tensions from his coming out, especially with his father (Bradley Whitford).
The parent-child dynamics and cancer plotline are certainly some of the more familiar aspects of the film, but underneath is a more unique study on on suburban stifling of queerness.
What the film particularly does well is exacerbate David's otherness and isolation upon returning home: the passive aggressive resentments for David living in New York, the cruel assumption that he feels superior to those back home, the insidiously vile lite rock band Train. Even an adolescent gay, perhaps more palatable to suburbanites due to his confidence and more vocal queerness, serves to make David an outsider within his surroundings.
All of this is held beautifully in Jesse Plemons's performance. Both smart and sensitive here, he expresses genuine emotion with a restraint that helps keep the film out of the maudlin. While the film doesn't serve Molly Shannon as much as you would expect, their scenes together are bubbling with chemistry - a completely believable mother and son that might not make sense on paper. He's been getting increasing praise over the years (not to mention an Emmy nomination for Fargo), but People shows the promising leading man that he could become.
It's not only a rare performance by a straight actor who doesn't define a character's gayness with affectation, but it's a relief to see a character that simply happens to be gay. Plemons handles this part of the character with great care, allowing David's queerness to become more subtly visible outside of the confines of his half-accepting family. His naturalism is an asset to the film when it asks for more overt sentiment to kick in.
The film does fall into the standard weepy trappings in its final third, losing some of its edge and biting humor in the process. The grander emotions don't hit nearly as hard as the small, more awkward heartbreaks along the way, and likewise Shannon is allowed to shine in smaller moments when the minute fractures break Joanne's chipper resolve. First time feature writer/director Chris Kelly shows strong promise in these quieter moments and finds unexpected beats within a familiar framework.
Other People is modest, insightful, and provides a gay perspective uncommonly seen on film with such everyday normalcy.