If someone decided to play last year’s wrenching terminal-illness drama “James White” for laughs as well as tears, the results might be as wincingly uneven as “Other People,” a none-too-subtle seriocomedy about a 29-year-old gay writer who returns home to care for his cancer-stricken mom. The setup alone sounds like a recipe torn from some high-concept indie cookbook, but while Chris Kelly’s semi-autobiographical writing-directing debut gets off to a painfully broad start, it does intermittently find its footing as it progresses, gathering enough well-observed moments and details to counterbalance its otherwise flailing stabs at humor and pathos. To the degree that it succeeds, chalk it up to two well-matched, change-of-pace performances from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon that represent the movie’s strongest shot at breaking out commercially, though it will have to overcome a sense of overfamiliarity and an extreme mileage-may-vary factor.
For those who walked out of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” thinking a moratorium on cancer-themed comedies might be in order, “Other People” is probably not the vehicle to renew their faith in this dubious subgenre. Kicking off with a prologue that establishes an irritating rhythm for subsequent scenes — painfully sad truths undercut, on cue, by out-of-nowhere comic interruptions — the movie subsequently flashes back 12 months to a New Year’s Eve family party that marks a more-bitter-then-sweet homecoming for 29-year-old New Yorker David (Plemons), who’s come back to Sacramento to help take care of his mom, Joanne (Shannon), who’s in the advanced stages of leiomyosarcoma.
David’s return trip is motivated by not just tragedy but failure: The TV comedy pilot he had high hopes for wasn’t picked up, and he recently broke up with Paul (Zach Woods), his boyfriend of five years — a fact that he keeps under wraps, not wanting to give Mom another reason to die unhappy. In any event, the strong-willed Joanne seems determined to go out on her terms, whether she’s making faces in the church choir or angrily pulling off her wig in public. And with her bad days now outnumbering her good one (cue numerous scenes of noisy vomiting), she decides to quit chemotherapy and accept the inevitability of what’s to come.
And so the movie counts down the months in Joanne’s last year of life, as seen through the painfully limited perspective of her only son, whose intense love for his mother leaves little room to engage with his sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty) or his emotionally distant dad (Bradley Whitford), who still can’t bring himself to accept or even talk about David’s sexuality. That aspect of the movie, incidentally, yields some of its most specific and emotionally resonant moments: Paul and David’s wistful bout of farewell sex is notable for its unusual frankness and tenderness, and David’s occasional meet-ups with another friend, Gabe (an excellent John Early), who’s trying to steer him back onto the dating scene, have an infectious and unforced comic rhythm.
“Other People” needs every such sliver of emotional honesty it can muster, given how quick the script is to fall back on a punchline (carefully timed to the rhythms of Patrick Colman’s editing), as if to inoculate the audience against the sort of hard truths that might otherwise be too shattering to bear. It’s the sort of movie that treats David’s grandparents (June Squibb, Paul Dooley) as senile comic targets one minute and spouters of sentimental wisdom the next, and whenever the mood gets too sad or uncomfortable, you can bet an annoying chatterbox will barge her way into the conversation at just the right tension-puncturing moment. The nadir (or, depending on temperament, the high point) is a bizarre set piece that trots out a precociously gay kid (played by J.J. Totah, the scene-stealing 14-year-old from “Glee”) to perform a hugely inappropriate drag number in a room full of increasingly horrified adults — an outlandish throwaway sequence that serves to drive home David’s own comparative lack of confidence.
Nervous about the possibility of connecting with others, and determined to maintain as steady a front as possible for his family’s sake, David is soon headed for a complete meltdown, and Plemons (“Fargo,” “Breaking Bad”) inhabits that downward spiral with a sense of modulation that just about justifies the climactic histrionics; in any event, it’s refreshing to see an LGBT character played with such endearing normal-guy awkwardness. Shannon, who played the dying girl’s mom in “Me and Earl,” here steps into the role of patient and comes through with a fierce and fully felt performance that doesn’t soft-pedal the most piercing agonies of Joanne’s ordeal. Even with her face pale and gaunt, and her head shaved, the character possesses a luminosity that seems to glow all the more brightly as her condition worsens, as if in defiance of the cancer’s steady onslaught.
Slickly assembled and loosely inspired by writer-director Kelly’s own experience, “Other People” seeks to capture the sort of raw emotional tidal wave — encompassing grief, horror and often incongruous, inexplicable hilarity — that anyone who’s watched a loved one wither away will instinctively recognize. But while the movie is rooted in what feel like real-life specifics — a scene at an improv-comedy club, the recurring snippets of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” on the soundtrack — it rings personal more often than it rings true, and at times it feels rather too attuned to its protagonist’s self-pity. By the end, at least, that condition seems to be on the mend: Of all the title’s various meanings, its most resonant implication may be that Joanne isn’t the only person of worth in David’s family, let alone his life. It’s a slow-dawning realization that bodes well for the character’s next steps beyond the parameters of this messy and sporadically affecting movie.