IIt’s hard to think of anything less amusing than watching someone you love draw their last breath. But at the beginning of Other People, filmmaker Chris Kelly manages to turn this searing scene into the stuff of screaming comedy. Like much darkest-hued humor, success revolves around the juxtaposition of the monumental and the mundane — in this case, mortality and a muddled Taco Bell order.
Kelly’s debut film, released in 2016, revolves around a struggling and dejected comedy writer (played by Jesse Plemons) who reluctantly returns to the place where he grew up, Sacramento, California, to be with his sisters and his Dad to help care for her cancer-stricken matriarch (the colorful Molly Shannon). The opening scene reveals her tragic fate. The rest of the film chronicles the year-long preparation.
Other People’s drama is not just about the mother’s downfall, but also the son’s thwarted rise; He struggles with his career, loses in his love life – having recently broken up with his boyfriend (played by Zach Woods) – and fails in his clumsy attempts to get his father to accept his sexuality. The story mirrors Kelly’s own: growing up in Sacramento, he became a comedy writer — albeit a much more successful one than his character in the film after serving as Saturday Night Live’s head writer for a time — and he lost his mother to cancer in 2009. So he knows what he’s talking about. Every detail in the film – from the improbably funniest to the unabashedly saddest – rings true.
I am better equipped to testify to the truthfulness of this than I wish. In the last decade, I’ve been through this whole “saw-someone-you-love-die” situation enough times to double my streaming gem choices for expert testimony. I have seen the four people closest to me throughout the dying process – my father, my best friend, my brother and my mother, in that order. In three of those cases, I witnessed the exact moment of her death (I missed my mother’s by minutes). And while I can tell you there wasn’t much hilarity in either of those scenarios, Kelly’s avid use of it in his film makes even the most poignant moments worth seeing, without denying a single pang of the pain that inspired them.
Its actors show equal skill in balancing hilarity and horror. Plemons uses his usual sphinx-like facial expression as a subtle tool to show the full range of his character’s stifled emotions. In an amazing scene, he ends up in bed with his ex-boyfriend. The result could go down in cinema history as one of the most sexually embarrassing scenes ever filmed. Yet as written by Kelly and acted by Plemons and Wood, the awkward interaction has an intimacy and warmth that touches the soul. A comedic actor who could always find empathy in even the most humiliating of situations, Shannon may seem too good to be true at times. She might be the most likeable dying person ever. Yet her grace never obscures the filo layers of anger and loss inherent in her lot. Even a character who might have been seeded in the script with a shoehorn finds a sweet place in pathos. Josie Totah, a trans actor who played male roles at this point in her career, stars as the overly flamboyant brother of Plemon’s best friend. It’s only a cameo, but the contours of the characters’ cheekiness speaks of a confidence you won’t soon forget.
Scene stealing of this sort fits well in a movie where the comedy isn’t now being created by the main character. Instead, Plemons plays the hapless bystander, brooding or fuming while the other characters struggle with how to respond to the deep sadness of his mother’s situation. Her will to cause as little pain as possible to others hurts at the sight of her torturous medical treatments.
As the film unfolds, its title takes on multiple meanings – from “this kind of horror happens to other People” on the concept of otherness itself. In 1981, Martin Amis published a novel entitled Other People: A Mystery Story. But the truth is, if you live long enough, situations similar to those in the movie will happen to each and every one of you.