Living and Dying
Chris Kelly based his movie “Other People” on the time he spent living with his mother for several months as she was dying of cancer. His movie shows the awkwardness of having to care for a dying parent and this includes the forced closeness to one’s family and childhood home, how one responds when someone asks for an update and the banality of people who do not know what to say. Kelly who is one of the writers for Saturday Night Live, brings together the comedy and tragedy of what he went through as his mother was leaving this world.
“Other People” is about 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). We see him attending a party at his parent’s house. Other guests at the party are broad suburban caricatures. We immediately feel David’s discomfort around these people.
We soon understand that David’s complicated feelings about his home come partly from his homophobic father’s (Bradley Whitford) refusal to accept his sexuality. We also learn that David is generally uncomfortable around almost everyone except his mother, his friend, Gabe (John Early), and his ex-boyfriend, Paul (Zach Woods). He learns something very important from his mother’s death— the importance of connecting with “other people.” David is the focus of the film and everything is related from his point of view. We see that he is unable to connect to his sisters and because of that we see little of them.
David came home when the television show he was working on in New York was cancelled and he had broken up with his boyfriend. When he gets there, he learns that his mother has decided not to continue chemotherapy treatment and is in a great deal of pain. He becomes very anxious about losing his mother especially because she supported him when he came out. That was ten years ago and his father has still not been able to accept this. This troubles David but he is also having a terrible time dealing with his mother’s certain death. After all, he thought, only other people lose their parents and he confided this to his friend Gabe.
David becomes sullen, closed and withdrawn setting him apart from other characters in the film. Those characters are there for the purpose of teaching David various lessons including becoming more confidant, putting himself out there, reconnecting with family. It is Molly Shannon, though, who 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 her. She’s also very funny in scenes that show Joanne navigating the awkwardness of interacting with people who know they may be seeing her for the last time.
Dealing with death through humor tends to give aid to families and loved ones who are facing the most permanent aspect of our existence. It is a time when to cope is about struggling, communication with non mourners is very difficult and connection with others can be problematic. When he have humor, our minds are subverted and smiling and laughing lifts spirits and decreases stress. Sometimes it provides a source of strength when we need it most as we experience a situation in which we have no power. “Other People” successfully uses humor and laughter as stays against death. (Remember the cemetery scene in “Steel Magnolias”?).
Joanne herself uses humor as a survival mechanism. In a scene in a church, she clowns around while singing in the choir and provides her family with a surprising moment of release from their fears of losing her. But then switching moods, Joanne tells David that she used to worry about her children forgetting her but now she feels that when they look into the faces of their siblings, they will see traces of her (and what a beautiful thought that is).
While Joanne begins to shut down and in hospice care, David’s pent-up frustration, anger, grief, and loss come rushing out of him in an incredible scene in a store where he has a melt-down while looking for laxatives. Jesse Plemons gives an incredible performance that shows us his vulnerability. Molly Shannon is superlative as his courageous and loving mother who never wanted to be anything in life but a good parent.
Trying to make light of cancer in movies is never easy and “Other People” falls into the trap of relying too much on negative stereotypes and this takes some attention away from the disease as it inflicts its own much more superficial pain.
The movie starts when Joanna has just died and as her family lie around the house in a state of shock. We hear the phone ring and the answering machine picks up the call from an acquaintance who has called to ask in a very offhand way how Joanna is doing (as the caller is also trying to pick up Chinese takeaway food). The absurdity of the conversation immediately lightens the mood.
For the previous past year Joanne had been looked after by David who seems to be more obsessed with his own problems/happiness than that of his dying mother, even though we clearly see that loves her. He cannot connect on any level with his two sisters who are genuinely fond of him, or with his homophobic father. There is a very strange subplot involving David and his gay friend Gabe plot strand that really doesn’t seem to fit the film. David and Gabe visit Gabe’s father who has adopted a precocious and outrageous gay-teenager who performs a whole drag routine one afternoon. (It’s truly bizarre). There is also David taking a quick trip back to New York that and having farewell sex with Paul, his ex, and this seems to be the nearest thing to happiness that David is capable of experiencing.
“Other People” is a must-see film. It is exceptionally balanced and downright hilarious at times. It moves between light and dark, is truly crazy at times and heartbreaking at others.