David, an almost-30 mostly-failed comedy writer, moves back to his Sacramento hometown to live with his parents after possibly the worst year of his life. Just broken up with his boyfriend of 5 years, David (Jesse Plemons) now resides in his old childhood bedroom in the house of his homophobic father (Bradley Whitford) and cancer-ridden mother (Molly Shannon). He barely interacts with his two younger sisters, his relationship with his father is adequate (when he’s not refusing to acknowledge that his son is gay), and the only problem with his mother is the disease that’s killing her.
Shannon achieves a fluidity in the emotions of her character, providing the majority of the funnier, light-hearted moments as she’s written as a jokey, charismatic person whose personality is slowly drained away by illness. Plemons’ own character wasn’t as fully realised as Shannon’s: he is self-absorbed, but not selfish; blind to his sisters, but not his mother; awkward and isolated, but easily able to adapt to his improvisation comedy groups. Whilst those ‘contradictions’ are not necessarily bad characterisations, the way his character acts in certain situations to gain specific reactions feels inconsistent with what the film is trying to tell us about who he is. It feels conflicting and makes it difficult to align yourself with David, which in turn takes away from what would be the more powerful moments of his character growth.
Family relationships are clearly an important theme of Other People, but no string felt tied up enough to justify the way the film acted like they were. No conclusion felt substantiated, leaving an unsatisfied feeling behind. I do think the relationship between David and his father managed to conclude nicely by the end of the film, but it didn’t feel enough. His two sisters definitely didn’t get enough exploration in their feelings towards David’s self-absorption, and the comedy career David struggled to keep in the light came across as an after-thought, as if it was added in right before they began filming. The narrative did touch on these things, but never in a natural way that ever went below a shallow surface.
Due to the lack of deeper character connection or development from anyone besides Shannon’s character, the focus ends up on her and her story. This turns Other People into another film about a dying family member in a wealthy, comfortable, middle-class household. The film loses its interesting main character and potentially strong themes to a tale told many, many times over in cinema. It loses its uniqueness.
Whilst this film did have its issues with characterisation and how it establishes something on a surface level without expanding upon it enough to make it believable, the cast of actors makes this film somewhat entertaining to watch. Plemons is a fantastic actor, and Shannon is genuinely a show-stealer. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to elevate the film higher.