By Christine Westwood

The opening sequence of Other People shows a family of grieving siblings and their father hugging their mother who has just died. It’s a scene of extreme tragedy, and then the phone rings. It’s a friend of the mother who, by the banality of the message that she leaves on the speaker phone, doesn’t know how ill she was. The audience laughs, at the absurdity and the pathos, and there the tone is set for Chris Kelly’s first feature, which premiered on the opening night of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “This film is part of the new generation of young filmmakers that are such deep storytellers,” Sundance festival director, John Cooper, said while introducing the film. “It’s very exciting. For this film to be a first feature is just incredible. This just had to be the Day One film because it’s what Sundance is all about.”

The title refers to how we always think that bad things happen to other people. There is terrific detail in the intimacy, looks, and gestures of the characters, and in their idiosyncrasies. Chris Kelly’s sharply observant and compassionate eye reveals not what we think life and people should look and behave like, but the specific and actual, which is far more shocking and comic. The plotting and dialogue are fresh and true in the moment, and the whole film feels immediate and pointed, as Jesse Plemons plays David, a gay, struggling scriptwriter who goes back home to be with his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). The performances are extraordinary, and it feels like we’re watching real people, mainly because of how far they let us in. Other characters – the sisters and the grandparents – are sketched expertly, like the grandfather (Paul Dooley) who is comically obsessed with morbid stories. Some writers would have pulled it back to keep within the bounds of credulity, but Kelly’s sense of real people in real life isn’t credulous, it just is.

Kelly was asked by a member of the screening audience how he went from hysterically funny scenes to jaw dropping sadness? “That’s how I experienced it,” he replied. “It’s based on my own life. I remember laughing so hard, and then things would change to something really awful. There would be the most horrible, sad, depressing experience, and then my mum would say, ‘I tried medical marijuana!’ If we got you laughing, and then pulled the rug out from under you and showed you a sad scene, that would be more effective and vice versa. I wrote the script a few years ago, and it was a very emotional experience. It was a personal story, but there was a year or two of nothing happening with it. This script just existed in my home. Then I was trying to pitch it around and trying to get someone to make it, so it became like a business where you’re trying to turn a very personal story into this commodity. I got numb to it, so when it came time to direct, I thought that I’d be cool, calm, and collected, but it was emotional again. Then it was the same thing here at Sundance. It’s been a while, and you watch it so many times editing it, but seeing it tonight…oh, this is so emotional again.”

Though a filmmaking debutante, Kelly is far from a rookie. Currently a writer on the legendary sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, he has also written for TV shows like Broad City and Onion News Network. “I’ve got a lot of experience,” he says. “On Saturday Night Live, you get a lot of hands-on experience producing your own pieces. That teaches you a lot of different aspects of producing something and making something. With this film, I don’t know how to explain how it happened, other than the producer, Naomi Scott, read the script and was so supportive. It was such a small, sad, personal script, and they said that they wanted to make it, and then they fought to make it.”

Other People represents a major shift for former Saturday Night Live star, Molly Shannon, still best remembered for her work as warped Catholic schoolgirl, Mary Katherine Gallagher, and only an occasional dramatic actress. Her performance as the vivid, funny, brave, and terrified mother is a standout. The audience at Sundance applauded every time that she spoke or was mentioned, and Shannon was anxious to pay credit to her director for the success of the role. “I felt inspired working with Chris,” she said at the festival. “He writes from his heart, and it was wonderful to be around that. It felt so pure and creative, and I feel so grateful. There are people who just do what they think they should do business-wise, and it’s so touching when someone pulls something straight from their heart.”

Despite how it might seem on the surface, Shannon says that Other People isn’t actually that far out of her wheelhouse. “I did start out as a dramatic actress in New York,” she explains. “I used to do a lot of dramatic monologues with a Southern accent…it was really over the top! People mainly know me for comedy, but the truth is, I love drama, and when I read Chris’ script, it was breathtaking. You just don’t get these kinds of scripts. What an honour. I wanted to do a really good job and service the material. I just feel so lucky.”

Adds Chris Kelly: “When we were trying to cast this movie, I wanted people who were great at comedy. I wanted people to remember that death isn’t just sad all the time. And I remember specifically with Molly that I wasn’t trying to cast by looks. She didn’t need to look like my mom…I tried not to think about that stuff. Then Molly invited me to a backyard party, and everybody that I spoke to said that she was the best person, and that she was so nice. I called my sisters on the way home, and I was crying. I said, ‘She’s so much like Mom, and I know it doesn’t matter, but she’s so funny and so nice!’ That’s when I thought, ‘Okay, we can do this. We can shoot this. I can picture it.’”

In a movie full of uninhibited characters, Justin – played by 14-year-old, J.J. Totah (Glee) – has to be the most out there, especially in an outrageous cross dressing dance scene. “I was finishing filming Glee when I was in the audition,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You’re going to have to dance and dress up. Are you okay with that?’ I said, ‘Give it to me!’ They said that we could develop the character based on what I like.” Adds Chris Kelly: “J.J. was renovating his house and putting in Carrera marble, so we included that in the script. For the rest of it, we met and went to a coffee shop in LA and [J.J.’s transvestite alter ego], ‘Justina Carrera’, was created.” Adds Totah: “Me and Chris are both from Sacramento. I am very aware of the boring life of Sacramento. Trying to do theatre there…well, there wasn’t really much scope. Whether you’re a boy, girl, or not determined yet, that’s okay, honey! You can do whatever you want to do. If you’re a girl, you can go on the football team, or if you identify as a boy, you can wear a dress and work a stage if you want. This character really shows that it’s okay to be whoever the heck you are!”

Terrifically likeable and watchable, Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Black Mass, Bridge Of Spies) has to carry off the role of grieving, struggling David without seeming like a martyr or a loser. He brings a great depth to the performance, yet you feel like you are with someone real and ordinary. “The movie is about loss, but it’s also about being okay with who you are,” Plemons says. “One of the differences between myself and my version of David, which is really Chris, is that Chris is just tougher than I am. I was obviously drawn to the beautiful simplicity and honesty, and we moved so fast. The shoot was 22 days, but this is the type of script where you immediately go, ‘Yes!’” Plemons plays a gay man whose father is still in denial of the fact ten years after he came out. It is this issue in particular that illustrates how a crisis brings up underlying problems and spikes them with urgency, forcing them to be confronted. Chris Kelly’s ability to weave complex narratives and subtexts while still retaining the film’s pace, emotion, and comedy mark him as a major talent to watch. The last question that he was asked at the screening was if it was difficult to write something about his family and then have them there to see the finished film. “It wasn’t hard for me,” Kelly replies. “That’s because the movie is about my family. It was very cool and emotional watching people play versions of ourselves.”

Other People will be released later this year.


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