Balanced somewhat precariously between broad comedy and personal memoir, Chris Kelly's Other People, loosely based on his time living with his mother for several months as she died of cancer, attempts to mine the very specific awkwardness of caring for a dying parent: the forced closeness to one's family and childhood home, the stuttering responses that tumble out of one's mouth whenever someone asks for an update, the banal bromides and useless advice dispensed by people who don't know what else to say. In these moments of particularity, Kelly, a writer for Saturday Night Live, beautifully merges his comic instincts with his own experiences. Other times, however, he seems to be straining for a punchline, leading to some exaggerated comic set pieces that disrupt Other People's carefully balanced tone.
The film opens with one such bit of broad comedy, a scene in which David (Jesse Plemons), an aspiring comedy writer who's just moved from New York City back to Sacramento to help care for his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), attends a party at his parent's house populated by broad suburban caricatures whose main sin is that they don't understand the nuances of the entertainment industry. At one level, the scene is meant to establish David's discomfort around the people in his hometown, but it plays as a smug dig at the rubes in suburbia. Later, the film seems to find it inherently amusing that a grocery store clerk would describe himself as a “writer.”
The film is at its sharpest when Chris Kelly hands scenes over to his main character's family and friends.
We come to understand that David's complicated feelings about his home stem in part from his homophobic father's (Bradley Whitford) refusal to accept his sexuality. We also learn that David is generally uncomfortable around almost everyone save for his mother, his friend, Gabe (John Early), and his ex-boyfriend, Paul (Zach Woods), and that his mother's death will ultimately help teach him the importance of connecting with “other people.” This theme is weakened by Kelly's singular focus on David, as everything is told from his point of view, and his sisters, with whom he rarely connects, barely register as a presence for most of the film.
David has a right to be sullen and closed off from the world, but in contrast to the film's richer, funnier supporting characters, he's not all that interesting. Other People is at its sharpest when Kelly hands scenes over to David's family and friends. While these characters exist primarily to teach David various lessons (be more confident, put yourself out there, reconnect with your family), Kelly provides his actors with enough space to make an impact. J.J. Totah, for example, steals every scene he's in as a flamboyantly gay tween who at one point performs a wildly inappropriate drag show to politely perplexed silence. Shannon, though, is the film's ace in the hole, as her beautifully natural performance is attuned to the wearying effects of chemo and the quiet struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy for the benefit of those around you. She's also very funny in scenes that depict Joanne navigating with dry humor the awkwardness of interacting with people who know they may be seeing you for the last time; she even draws big laughs in a hoary parents-get-high-for-the-first-time scene. Shannon's performance locks into the film's most fully realized theme: that even the grueling misery of dying cannot rob you of a sense of humor if you don't allow it to.