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Other People review: A cancer dramedy in which other people are the punchlines

The Sundance opening night finds its voice in its details

One could mistake Other People's synopsis for a parody of a film festival weepy. The semi-autobiographical cancer dramedy follows David, a gay New York writer dealing with a terminal mother and a father who won't acknowledge his sexuality. The uneven film could handily clear a card of Oscars Bingo by its midpoint. But acute, specific observations on life with cancer mostly elevate what could have been an overfamiliar tale of self-pity. Other People isn't perfect, but it's deeply personal.

The debut of writer / director Chris Kelly benefits from humbling performances. Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon, playing David and his cancer-stricken mother Joanne, respectively, bring a subtlety to scenes that too often crib from genre playbooks: the ironic visit to the hometown bar; the profound conversation on the childhood playground; the filmed-through-a-crack-in-the-door cancer prognosis.

Perhaps the familiarity was intentional. Scenes often feel like spoofs, taking a tearjerking scene from a similar film and putting it on its head. The film opens, for example, with a neck-snapping tonal shift, pairing the death of Joanne, ensconced by weeping family, with a poorly timed voicemail from a family friend, wishing Joanne good luck fighting cancer, while ordering a burrito from a drive-thru.

Plemons makes a self-pitying writer relatable

From there, the story rewinds to New Year's Eve a year prior. David's just returned from New York, leaving behind a halting comedy writing career and a fresh break-up with his boyfriend of five years, Paul (Zach Woods). In the Sacramento suburbs, he finds a closed-off dad (Bradley Whitford), and two sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty), all three of whom David ignores until a climactic moment of redemption.

Though pills or therapists never make an appearance, Other People is broadly about David's depression. He has a TV development deal, a loyal best friend, an inhumanly patient and understanding ex, a mother who remains infatuated with David through her own fatal ordeal, and a hometown community who admire him for taking the leap to the big city. But David is stubbornly detached, blind to everything but flaws. When he goes on an OkCupid date, his attempt at connection involves putting down everyone else at the bar.

Plemons' performance makes David's pity relatable, giving the young man an outward softness that conceals the biting humor. An intimate sex scene with ex-boyfriend Paul is memorable, codifying both David's character and the film's tone. The two men, lit by the orange light that seems to only exist in New York apartments, swap inside jokes, jabs, and unguarded openness. Paul is so lovable, and that he loves David makes David lovable by proxy.

Some scenes play like spoofs of a cancer dramedy

Joanne is oddly the supporting character in a dramedy about her own death, but when given screen time, Shannon makes the most of it, screaming and vomiting and fighting against her fate without becoming a belligerent charade. Her most memorable scenes are her softest. When David and Joanne visit the teachers at her school, Joanne's body trembles like a ghost, and she's treated as such. The dying woman's words are whispers, echoing the same messages, pleading to be heard. But Joanne's colleagues look through her, speaking of Joanne as they would over wine at her wake.

There's more to Other People, like a showdown between David and his unaccepting father, and a protracted visit to New York and the Upright Citizen's Bridge. Watching bad improv comedy is hard in real life; on film, it's torture. A surreal scene in which a young boy named Justin performs a provocative drag routine won't be forgotten; its thematic purpose in the film is another story. Some side plot land, others whiff, but all feel like time fillers, keeping us from David and Joanne, two people who connect in this world in which real connection feels inches out of grasp.

The title is explained toward the conclusion: cancer happens to other people, until it happens to your people. But "other people" may as well be a reference to David's obsession with picking apart everyone outside the relationship with his mother. Suburban couples are unfunny trogolodytes, the elderly are senile crackpots, and a local grocery story worker is a pathetic failure. The problems of other people are the only drug potent enough to help David, more salve than cure. It's troubling, then to imagine David without Joanne, all alone on a planet full of punchlines.