The Sundance cancer tragicomedy for people who hate Sundance cancer tragicomedies.
“There’s this movie you have to watch”, my friend told me. “It was at Sundance this year. It’s about a writer who has to go back to his hometown to take care of his mom, who has cancer.” My reply was frank. “No way.”
Why would I, or anyone for that matter, want to watch something that sounded like yet another uninspired rehash of a trope as old as Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar? Both the artist-returning-home and parent-with-cancer formulas have been in high-demand as of late, sometimes converging to emotional effect as in 2010’s fantastic Beginners, or falling flat as in John Krasinski’s dismal The Hollars (also this year). While it’s not hard to deduce why it’s such a common premise (what artist hasn’t had to begrudgingly return to their hometown?) and while it is difficult to discount films about such a personal and painful topic as cancer, few would disagree that movies like Other People can elicit a groan simply with their loglines. I did hold off on watching it for a while, but eventually my love for its cast won over, and on a fateful Friday night, I sat down to watch it.
Long story short, Other People, which is new to Netflix this week, has since remained firmly in my Top 5 for the year, much to my friends and colleagues’ disbelief. It’s also the hardest I’ve cried during a film in a year full of tearjerkers (yes, it got me even worse than Manchester by the Sea). But why would I place such a simple and rote film above so many other deserving masterworks, many of which have received more press and attention within the last few days than Other People has been given at all since it premiered in January? What was it about this 90-minute, relatively styleless indie debut about a white family in Sacramento that made me cry for a good half-hour after the credits rolled? Was it because I related to it as a gay writer who often struggles to connect with his family? The answer, like the film, is simple: Other People is a cancer tragicomedy for people who hate cancer tragicomedies.
The film opens with a flash-forward: David (Jesse Plemmons), his two younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty), and his father (Bradley Whitford) are in the dark, sobbing and holding each other’s hands around the bed where Joanne (Molly Shannon) has just died. Immediately we know that this film is not about whether or not she lives or gets better. Their grieving is then abruptly interrupted by a darkly funny voicemail on the home phone: it’s a rude acquaintance of Joanne’s, checking in half-heartedly to see how she’s doing while she orders from a drive-thru. The film then cuts to the title and starts from the beginning of their story. Not only do we go in knowing where the story is headed, but also with a unique understanding of the “bubble” of tragedy: while one family can be having the worst moment of their lives, other people are just, well, living.
Spread out over a year using months as chapters, the film begins with David having returned home after hearing about his mother’s diagnosis. He sees it as both an opportunity to help his mother and get away from a complicated relationship at home in New York City. He also sees it as a good time to catch up on writing, though he ends up spending more time staring blankly at his laptop screen than getting much of anything done. David struggles to connect or even make small talk with his extended family back home, frequently mocking them and shunning their boring, suburban lifestyle for the excitement he has sought in the entertainment industry. But it’s clear from their first scene together that this doesn’t apply to his mother Joanne. She’s hardheaded, fierce and very funny; through her carefree attitude and constant jokes about their relatives, we can tell that she is where David has gotten his knack for comedy and cynicism.
Joanne’s gradual descent into the debilitating throes of cancer is the most devastating aspect of the film. While the film primarily focuses on her family and their adjustments to the reality of losing a loved one, it is Molly Shannon’s miraculous handling of every human emotion on the spectrum that gives the film its pulse. She is the small-town life that David left behind, and in many ways she is both what he loves and hates about it. “I’m sorry about the things I said when you came out,” she tells him in one scene, dwelling on her initial rejection of David’s sexuality. His father still won’t even acknowledge it, but she has since come around and now embraces it. Though his relationship with his boyfriend (played sublimely by Zach Woods) is uncertain, he tells her they are going to get married; this gives her peace of mind as she nears passing on.
By the end of the film, David is beaten and battered by being back in Sacramento; he has barely written anything, his relationship back home is falling apart, and his father’s devastatingly passive-aggressive behavior regarding his sexuality is only getting worse (“I am open to having that debate”, he tells him, as if his sexuality were something up for contention). We see David at his worst before the tragic developments of the third act force him and his family to come together and work through their problems. Not everything is fixed by the time Joanne dies, and if anything, things are even more uncertain. But David finally overcomes the cynicism he brought with him when he first got back into town, and seeks to truly reconnect with his family in the wake of their loss.
“It wasn’t therapy,” first time writer-director Chris Kelly told the Sarasota Film Festival, despite the film being a dramatization of his own life. “It was already a year later, so I had some distance and I was in a good place. I just started jotting down big and small and funny or sad details and I started noticing some patterns.” Like the protagonist, he returned home from writing for SNL (he is now the head writer there) to Sacramento to take care of his mother, who was dying of cancer. And what Kelly saw in this film, aside from being a fictionalization of his own life experiences, was an opportunity to deconstruct the cynicism we all feel towards the small town life that made us who we are – even if its greatest effect on us was making us want to finish high school and get the hell away.
There is perhaps no better example of this theme than the film’s most effective cinematic technique – making us listen to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” repeatedly. It plays for laughs a couple times when David first gets home, accidentally running into those corny lyrics by turning on the radio, or cringing while his family sings it in the car. I won’t spoil how it comes back or how it’s used, but rest assured it is one of the most devastating and emotionally stirring endings in an American film this year; I still can’t listen to it without immediately tearing up.
Speaking to Kelly at the film’s premiere in Austin, I asked about his line of thought behind the song usage. It turns out he had included it from the very first drafts of the film, as it had been a very real part of his life at that time; what could be better representative of small-town lameness than a song everyone loves to hate? One of the funniest and yet real moments of the film takes place, fittingly, in an Applebee’s. “Bet they don’t make fries like this in the city,” his dad tells him. We laugh, but he is frequently reminded throughout the film by moments like this that his family and friends actually enjoy their small-town lives. David faces scoffs and laughs from everyone about his decision to leave and make his fortune in the New York comedy scene – everyone except his mother. She’s excited for him and his ambition to lead a better life than anyone in Sacramento ever did, but she still wonders, as that Train song goes, “did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?”
“The thing is, I actually think it’s a great song”, Kelly confesses. And maybe with a little perspective, it is.