There are two kinds of sniffles at Sundance — illness or emotion, with the latter far more rare. But plenty of sniffles were heard throughout the Eccles during the world premiere of Chris Kelly‘s semi-autobiographical cancer dramedy “Other People” on Thursday night — along with a noticeable number of walkouts.
The directorial debut of “Saturday Night Live” writer Kelly was another strong opener for the Sundance Film Festival, which has been on a roll of late following “Whiplash” in 2014 and “The Bronze” in 2015, though the latter still hasn’t somersaulted into theaters.
“Other People” stars Jesse Plemons as a gay comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento from New York to care for his mother, who has a rare form of cancer.
After playing the mother of a girl with cancer in last year’s Sundance darling “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Molly Shannon returns to Park City to battle the disease herself, injecting some much-needed levity into the serious subject matter.
Unlike “Me and Earl,” which misled viewers regarding the fate of its cancer patient, Kelly is upfront about Shannon’s losing battle. Instead, his film is about the journey — hers and her family’s. There are drastic tonal shifts, but the director keeps the proceedings fairly light, even in the face of such pain.
Social media reaction to “Other People” was positive to mixed, as the film was fairly divisive. Some found it too long and too slow, and at least a dozen people could be seen walking out at various stages of the film, including after an intense sex scene between Plemons and his ex-boyfriend.
Still, other people emerged with “Oscar” on their lips with regard to Shannon, who shows a different side of herself as a performer while demonstrating more dramatic range than many of her fellow “SNL” alums.
That said, the film rests on Plemons’ shoulders and the rising young actor (who recalls a young Philip Seymour Hoffman at times) proves that the holy TV trinity of “Friday Night Lights,” “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo” was no fluke. As noted by one prominent reporter, “Other People” also gives Plemons the chance to play a three-dimensional gay character — something all too rare in Hollywood.
Of course, the film also trades in the occasional gay stereotype, with a flamboyant pre-teen boy doing a provocative stripper routine in a blonde wig, but it’s hard to protest when the young actor traipsing around is so damn funny. That would be “Glee” alum J.J. Totah, who didn’t just steal every scene he was in despite being the youngest member of the ensemble, but stole the post-screening Q&A at the Eccles as well with his youthful energy and attitude.
While “Other People” will certainly garner theatrical distribution offers, its commercial prospects remain dicey, as neither Plemons nor Shannon are proven box office stars, regardless of how strong their performances are. The film will require the care of a savvy distributor, of which there is no shortage at this year’s buyer-heavy festival.
Kelly drew a moderate standing ovation following the screening, though the Eccles crowd saved its loudest applause for Shannon, who reminded the director of his own mother, which helped her win the plum part. Kelly also said he wanted to cast funny people because he didn’t remember death being so sad all the time.
Along with producers Sam Bisbee, Naomi Scott and Adam Scott, credit is also due to the strong supporting cast, which includes Bradley Whitford and Maude Apatow as Plemons’ disapproving father and neglected sister, as well as Zach Woods, John Early, Matt Walsh, June Squibb and the aforementioned Totah.
“Other People” was introduced by Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper, who called Kelly “a filmmaker who inspires me.” Park City Mayor Jack Thomas also offered some opening remarks to kick off the festival.