Once you say the word “cancer” people can have a wide variety of reactions. Some people rush to sympathy, some ask for every detail on the diagnosis and others simply offer to be there if you need anything. Some people have no idea what to do.
Other People is a film that attempts to explore the way people respond to cancer, or rather to other people having cancer. It is as sad and cringey as that sounds, so you can decide for yourself if that’s your cup of tea.
Jesse Plemons plays David, a struggling gay writer living in New York when his mother (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer. He moves back to Sacramento for a year and we follow his story as his mother slowly deteriorates. This process plays out painfully, as it would in real life and could definitely hit too close to home for many people.
The movie is not a complete downer, juxtaposing the somber with healthy doses of cringe comedy. A few of these sequences succeed, but others fall flat. At the end of the day, the script and the main character just aren’t very funny. Much of the comedy comes at the expense of the Sacramento locals and David’s family. The jokes cross the line into mean-spirited territory on a few occasions, especially when David and his best friend go to the only gay bar in Sacramento.
This is just one part of why David is an unlikable protagonist. Throughout the movie he is obsessed with his own problems, especially his strained relationship with his father. He never ignores his mother, but he does ignore the rest of his family when they implicitly call for his moral support. His selfishness and unkindness are barely addressed in the end of the film, and he never admits to any shortcomings. There is some implication he may improve his behavior, but it seemed far too little to late for me. Perhaps adding to this, Plemons gives a very uneven performance. A scene late in the film when he drunkenly searches for medication for his mother is beyond his skill as an actor, and is painful to watch for all of the wrong reasons.
Molly Shannon, on the other hand, gives the dramatic performance of her career. She is always on, fully becoming the character. It isn’t a very subtle performance, but her character is not a small personality. The movie succeeds in making the person with cancer the most likable character in the movie. The rest of the cast were solid, but their roles demanded little of them. I recognized many character actors in the cast, but few of them were people whose names sprung to mind. This added a bit to making the movie feel real to me.
Other People is an example of lukewarm film-making. It’s funny, but not that funny. It’s sad, but never fully pulled me in. The protagonist is unlikable, but not in a way that furthers the story or satirizes reality. The acting is fine, but flat. Except for Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is perfect.