IIt’s hard to think of anything less fun than watching someone you love gasp their last breath of life. Yet in the opening of Other People, filmmaker Chris Kelly manages to turn this searing scene into a high-pitched comedy. Like much humor of the darkest hue, success hinges on the juxtaposition between the monumental and the mundane — in this case involving mortality and a mixed order from Taco Bell.
The plot of Kelly’s first film, released in 2016, centers on a struggling and downcast comedy writer (played by Jesse Plemons), who reluctantly returns to where he grew up, Sacramento, California, to help his sisters and father take care of him. for their cancer-ravaged matriarch (the iridescent Molly Shannon). The opening scene makes his tragic fate clear. The rest of the film tells of the year-long preparation.
The drama of Other People is not just about the decline of the mother but the thwarted rise of the son; he struggles in his career, loses in his love life – having recently broken up with his boyfriend (played by Zach Woods) – and fails in his restless attempts to get his father to come to terms with his sexuality. The story mirrors Kelly’s: he grew up in Sacramento, became a comedy writer – although he was much more successful than his character in film, having been the head writer for Saturday Night for a time Live – and he lost his mother to cancer in 2009. So he clearly knows what he’s talking about. Every detail of the movie — from the most improbably funny to the most unshakably sad — rings true.
I am better equipped to testify to the truth of this than I would like. Over the past decade, I’ve experienced this “watching someone you love die” situation enough times to make my selection of streaming gems an expert testimonial. I saw 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 these cases, I witnessed the precise moment of their death (I missed my mother’s by a few minutes). And, while I can tell you there wasn’t a whole lot of hilarity in any of those storylines, Kelly’s strenuous use in her film makes even the most heartbreaking moments watchable without denying a single shot of the pain that inspired them.
Its actors show equal skill in balancing hilarity and horror. Plemons uses his usual sphinx expression as a subtle tool to indicate the full range of his character’s suppressed emotions. In an incredible scene, he finds himself in bed with his ex-boyfriend. The result could go down in movie history as one of the most sexually awkward scenes ever filmed. Yet, as written by Kelly and performed by Plemons and Wood, the awkward interplay has an intimacy and warmth that touches the soul. Shannon, a comedic actor who has always been able to find empathy in even the most humiliating situations, can sometimes seem too good to be true. She might be the friendliest dying person ever. Yet her grace never obscures the thick layers of anger and loss inherent in her fate. Even a character who might have seemed shoehorned in the script finds a sweet place in the pathos. Josie Totah, a trans actress who played male roles during this phase of her career, comes across as the beyond-flamboyant sibling to Plemons’ best friend. It’s only a cameo but the outlines of the characters’ outrageousness speak of a confidence you won’t soon forget.
Scene stealing like this suits a film well where most of the comedy isn’t generated by the main character. Instead, Plemons plays the unfortunate observer, brooding or fuming as the other characters struggle to figure out how to react to the deep sadness of his mother’s situation. Her drive to cause as little pain as possible to others makes the sight of her torturous medical treatments pungent.
As the film unfolds, its title takes on several meanings – from “this kind of horror happens to other persons”, to the notion of otherness itself. In 1981, Martin Amis published a novel called Other People: A Mystery Story. But, the truth is, if you live long enough, situations similar to the ones in the movie will happen to every single one of you.