Trying to make light of cancer in movies is never easy and attempts at doing so do not usually make for good box office as last year’s Sundance big hit Me, Earl & the Dying Girl sadly found out when it failed to find an audience. This new movie, which is the directorial debut of writer Chris Kelly, and is loosely based on his own life, is a very unbalanced dramadey that relies too much on negative stereotypes for its own good which unnecessarily takes some attention away from the disease as it inflicts its own much more superficial pain.
The movie starts with the end of the story and with an exceptionally funny scene which fools us into thinking that it was setting the whole tone of the piece. Joanna (Molly Shannon) has just died and as her family lie around the house in a state of shock there is a phone call which the answerphone picks up. It is from an acquaintance who has called to ask in a very offhand way how Joanna is doing whilst at the very same time she is also trying to pick up some Chinese takeaway food that is making her get very irate. This rather bizarre conversation does at least lighten the mood because of its sheer absurdity.
For the previous past year Joanne had been looked after by her gay son David (Jesse Plemons) who left N.Y. where he now lives to come home. However his mother is not the sole reason that he is back in Sacramento which, for some undisclosed reason, he hates with a passion. He has just broken up with his boyfriend Paul, and also the TV series he was writing was not picked up by the Network. Most of the time David seems to be more obsessed with his own problems/happiness than that of his dying mother, even though he clearly loves her. He cannot connect on any level with his two sisters who are genuinely fond of him, or with his homophobic father who still refuses to accept David’s sexuality.
There is a very odd second plot strand that really doesn’t fit in well, and it has David meeting up with Gabe a gay friend who is back in town for a few days and together they visit Gabe’s father who has adopted a precocious and outrageous gay-teenager who performs a whole drag routine one afternoon. It’s really bizarre. Meanwhile David has a quick trip back to NY that results in some farewell sex with Paul which gives a mixed-blessing moment of the nearest thing to happiness it seems he seems capable of experiencing.
The one real bright spot in this rather maudling tale is the central performance of comic actress Molly Shannon as Joanna who is putting the bravest face possible on her impending death as she still feels the needs to put her family first even now. Shannon, who incidentally played the dying girl’s mother in Me and Earl last year, is on really excellent form here and pitches her performance beautifully. As Joanna she is the most unselfish person in the whole piece and Shannon conveys that with a very steely and quiet determination, that has us reaching for our kleenex on more than one occasion.
When a movie opens by revealing it’s eventual outcome it is very tough on the filmmakers to keep the audience fully engaged, and although Shannon does her very best, it’s Plemons as the unfortunate self-pitying rather cliched David that drags it all down to an uncomfortable level. If an excellent cancer-based movie such as Me & Earl should stumble, then Other People has little chance of succeeding.