Raw, messy and unkempt (as a domestic cancer drama should be), Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly’s feature debut is also a woe-is-me gay rom-com, a showdown between siblings and—at its best—an out-and-proud minimusical. If that sounds like too much, it is. An emblematic scene comes right at the start: Before we even know the crying family assembled in a group hug on a bed, a phone call interrupts their mourning with a lengthy answering-machine message left during an angry trip to a fast-food drive-through. But even though Other People constantly undercuts itself by trafficking in the worst indie clichés, it doesn’t lack for ambition, wending its way to a late-breaking sincerity.
Rewinding to a year earlier, Kelly sets his plot in herky-jerky motion with the return of failing comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons) to his boyhood home in suburban Sacramento, California. There he plans to assist his weakening mother (Molly Shannon, defiantly unglamorous) cope with the crippling blow of a cancer diagnosis. David hides the news of his professional decline and recent breakup with Paul (Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods), instead choosing to bear the slings of being “our New York City boy in the house.” Secretly, though, he’s a heartbroken gay man in free fall, something David still can’t talk about with his dad after coming out a decade ago—of all of the film’s strands, the bond between fathers and sons is the most complex, deserving of more attention.
Over a speedy narrative arbitrarily marked by the passing months, Kelly sharpens his two main performances into actual human beings: Plemons evolves from frustrated eye-rolling and seething to articulated anger, while SNL’s Shannon, always brassy as a storyteller, has a major scene when her voice has been stolen by the disease and she must pass the baton. Still, getting to those moments means enduring a silly meltdown in a supermarket, the ironic use of Train’s banal “Drops of Jupiter” (a repeated joke that never gels) and plenty of imprecise, caricatured supporting work. When Glee’s tiny dynamo J.J. Totah steals the film with a glammed-out, bewigged dance number, you’ll either be reminded of a squirmy moment from Little Miss Sunshine (“Can we be arrested for this?” David asks, awed by the teen’s confidence), or happy that the movie has finally found its spirit animal.