Some movies swing for the fences — and either strike out in big-budget, spectacular fashion, or hit a home run.
Others, such as the smart, lovely, funny, occasionally edgy, slightly cynical and ultimately heart-tugging “Other People,” are the equivalent of the singles hitter in baseball — content to accumulate one small and legitimate successful moment after another.
Cheers to that.
Working from the time-honored foundation of “Write what you know,” which can either be a tiresome trope or the springboard for a fresh and original voice depending on the talent level involved, writer-director Chris Kelly (“Saturday Night Live,” Funny or Die, The Onion News Network) is clearly in the latter category with this nimble slice of life-and-death about an almost-successful New York City comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento to help care for his terminally ill mother.
If that sounds like the classic recipe for a modern-day indie film, well, yes, it is. But the fact Kelly leans so heavily on Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” — a solid mainstream ballad but pretty much the antithesis of all things indie — and uses it to great effect throughout the film is just one indication this isn’t going to be a pretentious, self-satisfied journey.
Jesse Plemons, who was terrific as the hapless Landry on “Friday Night Lights” and took it to the next level as the casually chilling psychopath Todd Alquist on the final season of “Breaking Bad,” is a deadpan delight as the 29-year-old David, a gay writer of some talent who puts his career on hold and travels cross country to be with his dying mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) and his Sundance-friendly dysfunctional family, played by a roster of “Oh I always liked him [her], what’s his [her] name?” actors, including:
• Bradley Whitford from “The West Wing” as David’s conservative father Norman, who still hasn’t acknowledged David’s sexuality some 10 years after David came out to the family.
• Paul Dooley from “Breaking Away” and “Sixteen Candles” and a million other roles, and June Squibb, most recently from “Nebraska,” as David’s maternal grandparents, who could have been RV-driving clichés if not for Kelly’s elevated writing and the quietly powerful acting by the two veteran character actors.
• Zach Woods (“The Office”) in a very funny and well-played turn as David’s ex-boyfriend Paul, who goes along with the ruse they’re still together for the benefit of David’s mother.
Plemons beautifully plays a character who absolutely loves his mother and is devastated by her illness and wants to be there for her every step of the way — but let’s remember, he’s just 29 and he’s coping with the breakup of a five-year relationship and some career setbacks, and so yes, he’s a little self-involved. To the credit of the screenplay and the direction, and Plemons’ fine acting, we feel for this guy even when he’s feeling sorry for himself.
I loved Molly Shannon’s work as Joanne, who has a ton of spark and spirit, but is never one of those clichéd “Movie Cancer Moms” who acts like a saint and is always telling her children to love one another and her husband not to be sad forever without her. In fact, Joanne HATES what her illness is doing to her, she is terrified by what awaits her, and she sometimes rages against the fates in the way real people do when dealt such unfair cards. It’s a performance worthy of a best supporting actress nomination.
(Not that Shannon isn’t funny as heck to boot; in a scene in New York City when Joanne is called onstage for an improv bit, her walk is a combo platter of Shannon’s guest spot on “Seinfeld” as Elaine’s co-worker who walks without moving her arms, and her Mary Katherine Gallagher character from “SNL.”)
“Other People” also finds time and space to explore David’s relationships with his younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty, both wonderful), and his friendship with a buddy (John Early) whose own mother has passed away.
We know we’re going to get a scene where David confronts his father. We know we’re going to get a scene where David and his ex have some closure. We know those damn “Drops of Jupiter” are going to fall one more time.
And yet we continue to be surprised at the skill level of every at-bat.
Sometimes a whole bunch of singles add up to a home run.
Vertical Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Chris Kelly. Running time: 97 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque.