There is nothing original about the “parent with cancer” dramatic comedy. And Chris Kelly, the writer and director of “Other People,” seems to know that.
His Sundance hit, about a mom with cancer, is not a revolutionary movie, but it is well-acted and perceptive. The specificity of his characters raises the film above the maudlin notes of a movie of the week.
David (Jesse Plemons) is having a bad year. Sure, he wrote a winning comedy pilot, but it didn’t get picked up, and he just ended things with his boyfriend, Paul (Zach Woods). David leaves New York for Sacramento, where his parents live, because his mom, Joanne (Molly Shannon), has a terrible form of cancer.
Everyone understands she is going to die. (The chemo does nothing.) David acts brave for his mother, while he fumbles through his interactions with his father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), since Norman never quite accepted his son’s sexuality.
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David’s family is not effusive. They would rather keep their problems buried, out of fear of embarrassing one another. David hates living at home — there is a running gag about his daily indignities — and yet he is a kindhearted man who wants what’s best for his mother.
The scenes where he indulges himself, either through dating or a night out with friends, are where “Other People” finds its soul. Cancer is terrible for whoever suffers through it, but it’s no picnic for the rest of the family, either.
All of the actors are pitch-perfect. Plemons is a natural everyman who cannot fathom how he’s stuck in situations that are beneath him. Shannon downplays Joanne’s fear and suffering, which makes us care for her more deeply.
Joanne loses her voice as she approaches death, and Shannon resists the easy impulse by keeping her character annoyed — even bored — by her disease. Whitford’s Norman is a good-natured man, basically, except he’s also terrible to his son, who needs him. When David finally confronts him, it’s fascinating to see how a father struggles with his own intolerance and genuine affection.
“Other People” is downright studious in how it avoids cliche and the temptation to make its audience cry. Kelly is a natural comic writer, letting scenes play out so the outcomes are organic, never forced. Poignancy is a difficult thing to achieve, since it can come off as inauthentic or dumb. “Other People” gets there because David, Norman and Joanne do not want our pity.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
Not rated. Time: 1:37.