Making a Cinephile: Chris Kelly Finds His Voice in “Other People”
It is January 21, 2016. I am on my way to see the premiere of “Other People”, former SNL writer Chris Kelly’s outstanding debut, in the back of an Uber at Sundance Film Festival with my family in Park City, Utah, eager to see if the film has lived up to its hype. The last thing I remember seeing is a sea of oncoming headlights as we pull into the parking lot of Eccles Theater. I regain consciousness three minutes later, lying down on the snow on a stretcher, looking up at people hovered over me, their faces blurring together, the ambulance lights blinding me, paralyzed by pain and confusion. My last, succinct memory is being carried on a stretcher, drifting in and out of consciousness as my surrounding environment illusorily morphs from the blistering cold, to the ambulance, to the emergency room of the hospital.
The rest of the night was a surreal, dreamlike experience. I could vaguely hear the doctor repeat words and phrases throughout the night: “Temporal epilepsy, torn labra, cracked ribs, left shoulder dislocation, broken humerus bone, severed bicep muscle, detached rotator cuff.” I was put on anti-seizure medication and scheduled the reconstructive surgery on my shoulder immediately. I never did make it to see “Other People”, or any other movies I had planned to see at Sundance, for that matter.
I finally saw “Other People” the day the film was officially released in theaters on September 9th. During those 8 months in between my seizure and my viewing of the film, in a sense, the pause button on my life was on. Between the surgery, the diagnosis of progressive brain disease Hippocampal Sclerosis, one with similar symptoms and rates of dementia to those of Alzheimer’s, and the adverse effects of the anti-seizure medication, my spirit for life had diminished to a faint billow of fog hovering over me like a nosy ticket taker at a movie theater. My family and friends were a huge help in getting me back on my feet and supporting my endeavors to pursue my passion. The viewing, for me in particular, was a transcendent experience. By the end, I felt an even greater reinvigoration for life and had more respect for its curveballs.
Anybody who has witnessed a loved one die of cancer is going to find “Other People”, at times, difficult to watch due to the unidealized, naturalistic portrayal of the effects of cancer on the victim and the victim’s family. The film centers around aspiring television writer, David (played to perfection by Jessie Plemons), who moves back home from New York to the mundane suburb of Sacramento where he grew up to support his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon in an astonishing, career-best performance) while she endures chemotherapy.
There, David reconnects with old friends, cares for his sick mother, bonds with his sisters Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty) and Alexandra (Maude Apatow in her first role without her father at the helm), and battles his dad’s persistent refusal to accept his homosexuality. Chris Kelly does just as well of a job capturing the anxiety of returning to the place one grew up after a hiatus in the form of seeing people they never wanted to see again, encountering old friends’ parents, catching up with pesky neighbors and family friends, etc., as he does as portraying the sentimental side of returning to one’s roots; he displays the comfort of family, home, and the fondness of happy memories with authentic adroitness.
The three standout aspects of the film are Jessie Plemons’s performance, for which he will likely earn his first Oscar nomination, Molly Shannon’s revelatory, incendiary portrayal of a middle-aged woman coming to grips with age and death, and Chris Kelly’s sharp script, which displays witty dialogue and walks a seemingly seamless line between gut-busting laughter and raw, uncompromising sadness. Shannon’s latest addition to her dramatic role filmography will undoubtedly earn her an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It is that good.
I will not spoil the ending, but it will leave you emotionally drained, satisfied, inspired, and reinvigorated. The film instilled a lasting effect long after viewing that permeates one’s psyche; it reminds the audience of the importance of the little things. The moments in between the moments we so often overlook or take for granted. The film is at its best when it explores these minuscule but immutable moments, examples of which can be seen in scenes between David and Joanne; I would watch the duo laugh and cry together for an entire feature length film.
After finally seeing “Other People”, I felt a light, albeit relieving weight lifted off of my shoulders, as if, symbolically, the film assisted me in coming to terms with what had happened to me at Sundance and accepting my reality. It was the penultimate moment of my recovery. After viewing the 97-minute emotional rollercoaster, though exhausted, I felt strong, eager to look forward and not back; I was determined to live my life exactly how I wanted to, to pursue my dreams, and to keep fighting. Because when life throws you enough of those curveballs, you learn how to hit them, and, eventually, you become an effective hitter. I made a vow to myself that the next time I return to Sundance Film Festival, it would be as a filmmaker premiering a movie of my own. Alas, here I am, working to making my dreams a reality. If I do ever make it back to Sundance and my film is even a minute fraction as accomplished as Kelly’s debut was, I will die a happy man.
Chris Kelly’s debut was so impressive, his next film will be tough to live up to the impossibly high standards he has set for himself with “Other People”. But, I have no doubt that Kelly, displaying all of the characteristics of a true auteur, is more than capable of surpassing these daunting standards. One should go into this film knowing that it will be an emotionally trying but, ultimately, a sincerely sanguine cinematic experience. It does not take witnessing a loved one passing of cancer or any other cause, undergoing a near-death experience, suffering through life-changing diagnoses, or being around those who are to find something in this beautiful film with which to make an emotional connection. I would be remiss if I did not recommend this film with every fiber of my being to film lovers and casual film viewers alike.