Until my dad died from cancer last year I always felt like cancer was something that happened to other people, sometimes even people I (kind of) knew, but never in my immediate family. That might speak poorly of me in terms of empathy and narcissism. However, it’s remarkably easy to hold cancer at an emotional distance from yourself, foolishly convinced it’s not the kind of thing which will affect you any time soon. As such, once cancer crept into my family I was often stuck viewing the experience through the prism of movies and TV shows, entering into a surreal world in which my life resembled any number of cancer narratives which have played out on screen over the years. Except, of course, there was no miracle cure. No improbable victory. My dad didn’t beat cancer. He died, as so many others have.
Shortly after the funeral, I heard an interview with SNL co-head writer Chris Kelly on KPCC’s The Frame. He was promoting his new indie movie Other People, which he wrote and directed and based on his own experience returning home to care for his mother during her ultimately losing battle against cancer. Starring Molly Shannon as the dying mother and Jesse Plemons as the gay son looking after her, Other People is a dramatization of Kelly’s experience, not necessarily 100% autobiographical. It’s his attempt to make a cancer movie that is more authentic to his own experience. Life and its infinite complexities rarely matched up to the more simplistic cancer narratives he’d previously been exposed to.
As he told The Frame:
I remember thinking, Wow, I’m in a cancer movie. I’ve seen so many cancer movies, but I have never experienced it myself. But you always know a friend, or a friend of a friend, or an aunt or an uncle who’s going through it. You hear about it and you’re always a friend [saying], Oh, that’s so sad. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. Then to be going through it like, I’m in the scene where this happens. It felt so surreal, which is such a weird selfish way to think about it. But I had never been through it and I found myself going through the motions of this thing that I heard about and seen other people go through. But it felt very bizarre to [think], Now I have to do this?.
Suddenly Other People became a movie I had to see because what he described in the interview mirrored my own personal mindset. He continued:
I remember I had expectations going through that [and thinking], When am I going to learn? When do I have this beautiful moment with my mother? When does someone teach me something? When do I realize I believe in God? When is the music going to swell? It just was so much more different than I thought it was going to be. It was more brutal and more boring and then more strange and funny and absurd and harder than I thought it would be.
This interview skyrocketed Other People to the top of my must-see list, but it only ever played in 12 theaters nationwide. Once it made its way to VOD I wasn’t emotionally ready for it yet. I noticed it on Netflix last month, but it took me a week to work up the courage to watch it.
Yeah, there was some crying involved with watching this movie, not due to any of the traditional emotional manipulations of cancer stories but instead because of the sheer authentic nature of what’s on screen. It’s not overwrought, but instead boldly alternates between funny and sad, building to a simple but effective message about cancer teaching us the importance of being there for our family.
The opening scene involves David (Plemons), more or less a fictionalized version of Chris Kelly, lying at the foot of his mother’s bed, surrounded by his two younger sisters and conservative father (Bradley Whitford), everyone holding hands and simply being there for each other as the mother dies peacefully. As the sadness overwhelms them, they let the phone ring and listen as an old friend of their mother’s leaves a rambling message on the answering machine, nonchalantly talking while ordering a drink somewhere and explaining how she just heard about the cancer diagnosis and is simply curious to know bad it is. Um, pretty bad, I think, what with her having just died and all.
Thus, from the start Other People swings sad and funny. Furthermore, by giving us this early glimpse at the ending it immediately puts to rest any Hollywood-ized notions of this family beating the odds, removing the traditional narrative tension (e.g., will she make it or not?) and replacing it with a focus on the emotional journey to the inevitable end.
The rest of Other People’s running time is devoted to the 12 months which led up to that moment, properly introducing us to the family at a holiday party where everyone appears committed to the group lie that everything’s all right because mom will beat this. David has already relocated from New York to Sacramento at this point, alienated from the sisters he barely knows anymore (to the point that their repeated jokes indicate they don’t truly understand/respect what he does for a living) and a father who can’t accept the fact that his son is gay. The life David left behind in New York was a mess anyway, all dried up writing gigs and brutal break-ups. Now, it’s all he can do to put on a brave face and pretend he’s got everything together so his mom won’t have to worry.
As everyone else celebrates, David retreats to a corner, unable to get out of his own head. That is until his mother Joanne (Shannon) calls on him for help, asking his advice on her fashion choice for the evening, a frilly cocktail dress she once wore to a 70s theme party. The image of the two of them cutting up while debating the merits of the dress and discussing its history made it onto most of Other People’s posters, appropriately enough since this image not only highlights the two premiere performers (Plemons and Shannon) but also reflects how this is ultimately a movie about a mother and son sharing their final laughs and tears together in one exhausting year.
Of course, there’s also quite a bit of David simply feeling sorry for himself. He rolls his eyes as his family involuntarily sings along to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” when it comes on the car radio. He lashes out at those who argue Sacramento isn’t so bad. He consistently complains about his ongoing feud with his father, and concerns himself more with his own personal and professional failings than what his sisters are going through. When one of his sisters eventually tells him he’s not the only one who’s allowed to be sad he responds with the tone of someone who knew that to be true but didn’t truly understand it to be true.
That Plemons manages to make this anything other than insufferable is a testament to his talents, presenting us with someone who is clearly unaccustomed to dealing with grief and isn’t always adjusting as well as he should. However, the film, as The New York Times argued in its review, clearly “belongs to Ms. Shannon, who vividly etches Joanne in a full end-of-life range: funny, loving, angry, regretful, exhausted, resigned.”
[SPOILER WARNING FOR THE FINAL SCENE]
David’s difficulty with coping and fruitless search for a larger meaning behind all of this as well as Joanne’s end-of-life range culminate in what EW accurately referred to as “one of the most emotionally taxing scenes of 2016.”
Joanne — her weakened voice dulled to a whisper, her frail figure resting against her son’s chest — worries David will forget about her when she’s gone. She proposes a solution: ‘I’m right there in all your faces. When you miss me and you want to see me, just come home and see your sisters.” which opens David’s eyes — and his heart — to relationships he’d long neglected and brings the film to a fitting conclusion as, for the first time across the movie’s 90-minute runtime, David feels at home as his eyes meets his little sister’s.
“It’s what the whole movie is about,” Kelly told EW of the scene. “David’s searching for what he’s supposed to learn from this horrible thing. He’s looking in all the wrong places, frantically obsessed with what his lesson should be… so he’s like, I’m going through this story, what the f— am I supposed to learn? At that moment, he’s telling his mother, ‘I’m so sorry, you’re dying and I’m not doing well right now, I’m single and my life is kind of s–t,’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t care about any of that; just see your sisters, see me in your sisters.’”
I don’t know what I would have thought of Other People prior to my dad’s death. It might have seemed like just another inconsistent, well-acted indie dramedy which bloggers love and regular people never even hear about, quickly putting to rest any talk of Molly Shannon for an Oscar nomination. Maybe I would have been quicker to agree with The New York Times’ criticism, “Other People tries to lighten its heavy load with mixed results. Kelly adds humorous set pieces that don’t mesh well.” After all, that Little-Miss-Sunshine-if-Abigail-Breslin-was-a-flamboyantly-gay-little-boy sequence sticks out like a sore thumb, and David’s blind date scene goes on for way too long.
However, Other People provided me with one of my most emotionally cathartic film viewing experiences in a long time, emboldening me to second the following sentiment from Kelly’s EW interview:
“I hope people see themselves in this movie… when you’re going through something hard, always look to your left and look to your right and realize there are other people next to you going through it, too, in their own way,” he says, stressing the film’s final moments as a mirror for his journey toward acceptance. “I remember being worried about the me of it all; what will happen to me, how do I feel about this? What will happen to me when she’s dead? [I didn’t] see that as a wake-up call [at the time]. Between the death of my mother and filming that scene, I had seven years to think about what I wanted the movie to be about and what I wanted to learn, and that’s what I landed on.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Other People is the perfect cancer movie for pop culture obsessives who never thought cancer would happen to them (or their loved ones). It’s the most authentic cancer movie I’ve seen, at least authentic to my own experience.