Other People does something rather extraordinary that made me realize how far we still have to come in cinema. By telling a story of grief from the perspective of a gay man, it made me realize this was the first time I’ve ever seen a gay lead in the fairly common subgenre of grief movies. Sure, there have been plenty of movies about gay friends mourning the loss of a friend or lover to AIDS, but Other People is just about a guy losing his mom to cancer. Everyone has a mom and cancer doesn’t suggest a subtext about how she contracted it. Grief is so universal it shouldn’t have to be specifically gay or straight, and Other People proves that it doesn’t.
David (Jesse Plemons) returns home to Sacramento from New York to be with his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) as she goes through chemotherapy. Spoiler alert, this isn’t one of those movies where chemotherapy works and she goes into remission.
The immediate family unit is actually fairly strong, except that David’s father Norman (Bradley Whitford) can’t quite get comfortable with his son being gay. The more extended family is full of oblivious caricatures, but they’re true. There’s the uncle (Matt Walsh)’s bad jokes that everyone tolerates because it’s all he has and the only time he can feel popular is with the whole family. Since David is a screenwriter, everyone in the family thinks they could be material for the shows he rights. (Note to everyone who knows someone in the industry: Your experiences would not make a good script.)
The film goes monthly as Joanne’s treatment and symptoms get worse and worse. It’s sweet and honest about the difficult conversations you have to have, especially when one family member has an agenda.
When David goes back to New York we see his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods) and it is given intimate attention. When they share stories about teenage masturbation, it’s so relatable you again realize we’re all the same, just like how we all face grief at some point. Or maybe writer/director Chris Kelly is just on my wavelength.
The worse Joanne’s condition gets, there are scenes that accurately portray how well meaning people try to help but only make her feel more of a burden. She loses her voice and people try to let her keep talking, but they really can’t hear her and it’s only more frustrating for her. Of course, Shannon plays the hell out of the heartbreak of that scene. The whole cast really knows how to cry. That’s a particular skill to make it effective.
There is some effective comedy about mundane frustrations, like inattentive cashiers, that reinforces the perspective. David’s losing his mom and these people can’t even take a fast food order? Other humor is a bit too obvious, like an overly precocious gay teenager and overdosing on medicinal marijuana. There’s an extended sequence at Upright Citizens Brigade that feels like an ad for UCB. It wouldn’t even really be improvised since it’s specific to the fictional movie character. And singing in the car. My God, when will people admit that singing in the car is not funny? But that bit is short and used to show David’s frustration.
Other People is also modern enough to reveal a plot point by having David check his Twitter @ mentions. You see, for at least 10 years cinema has incorporated technology and social media so they are normal parts of the plot. You don’t even have to explain to an audience what it is anymore. The fact that cinematic Twitter became normal before movies about gay people grieving did is a problem.
Yes, I’m sure I missed a mainstream movie about a gay child losing a parent. The fact that it’s rare enough that I can’t think of another is what struck me. It was only 20 years ago that the only gay characters in mainstream movies were comic relief, and not too much longer that there were simply none. Maybe I’m part of the problem by even classifying it as gay. One day it will just be a movie about a family grieving, and that is the world Other People makes me foresee.