There is a cruel perversity to watching someone you love dearly die.
It doesn’t matter if it is sudden, or as is the case with Other People, slow and faltering, you are witness to one person losing their battle to keep death at bay even as life, as it should, goes skipping merrily on.
This agonising dichotomy is one of the issues richly examined in Chris Kelly’s extraordinarily moving film, which he both wrote and directed based on his intimately painful experience of watching his own mother succumb to cancer.
It is clear from the opening frames of this impressively self-aware examination of death and grieving and the way life somehow entangles it all, that Kelly has lived and breathed every one of the moments that populate the narrative.
Refreshingly, this authenticity of experience means that all the standard cliches and tropes that dot these types of films are mercifully absent.
There isn’t a “Hallelujah! Come to Jesus!” moment to be seen, no heartwarming epiphany that bathes everyone in a golden glow of love and emotional understanding that transforms mother Joanne’s (Molly Shannon in a deeply moving, nuanced performance) fight with terminal cancer into some sort of weak-ass movie-of-the-week heartwarming tale.
What you get instead, thank the gods of all that is real and true, is a film that doesn’t forget for the moment that going through the dying process with someone infinitely precious to you, is an unsettling mix of deep sadness, black humour and silly goofy moments, and conversations that skirt the reality of the moment every bit as much as they might embrace at another time.
There are no perfect conversations, no sense that everyone has a handle on what’s going on and no reassuring montages where Joanne bravely fights back against the odds.
What we get instead is an intelligently-written, insightful that celebrates the highs and mourns the lows, all the while acknowledging that facing death is an horrific undertaking, most particularly for the person dealing with their own mortality, but for their family who are powerless to stop the inevitable train of events.
The ceaseless march of life and time is represented throughout by obvious things like months appearing on screen before a new set of scenes, or the walks that Joanne and her gay writer son David (Jesse Plemons in a powerfully understated performance) from New York – everyone makes a big deal of his exotic lifestyle to the embarrassment of the introverted young man through whom the family’s emotional journey is viewed and charted – take through the park in their rapidly-growing new suburb of Sacramento.
Following a reasonably linear plot – the film is bookended with the death scene which it may surprise you to know is as funny as it is heart-wrenching – which charts Joanne’s progress from bon vivant who has to abandon her much-loved career as a second grade teacher through her trip to New York mid-year to see David perform with his improv group through to the literal winter of her life, we are witness to the many ways family and friends handle this most emotional of times.
Amusingly, many people, much as you might expect have no idea what to say.
An acquaintance of David’s offers him a free DVD rental at the supermarket while a friend of the mother – not a close friend; that is immediately apparent when you hear the voicemail message – glibly rings Joanne from a restaurant where she’s ordering food, interrupting her menu picks with the sort of trite phrases and soothing tones people think they should adopt when talking to someone facing the end of their life.
Not of course that anyone outside of the family will even acknowledge that as a possibility; Joanne’s replacement at the school rather awkwardly assures a close-to-death Joanne that she’ll be back looking after her brood of second graders in no time.
There’s no judgement by Kelly whose deftly-worded script, which adroitly pivots between laugh-out-loud humour and grimly sad realisations with aplomb, understands that death is confronting and that even the most socially-adroit of people struggle to know how to respond in anything approaching an adequate fashion.
Skirting the issue though isn’t a luxury for Joanne, husband Norman (Bradley Whitford) and David’s younger sisters Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty) and Alexandra (Maude Apatow) who are forced, as anyone at the coalface of death must do, to confront a host of uncomfortable realities.
Again to Kelly’s great credit, these quite-normal kinks in the harmony of family life are handled in a way that always rings true.
David and dad Norman, who struggles with his son’s sexuality, talk but never fully resolve their palpable disconnect, the siblings, while somewhat close, never have the sort of heartwarming coming-together that a lesser film might manipulatively orchestrate and there’s no magical sense that David, facing the loss of mother, his hoped-for gig as a writer on a TV show, and his boyfriend, is turning a corner when his mother dies.
Life is never that neat, bearing none of the hard, cold certainty or neatness of death; the great trap that Other People never once falls into is to conflate life and death as two harmonious parts of a whole.
They are connected certainly, how could they not be, but while life willfully goes on where it will with no surety of its end point or form, death comes with ringing certainty, an end point from which there is no escaping.
The scene where Joanne dies is perhaps the emotionally redolent, and yes partially hilarious, moment in the entire film.
It doesn’t even for a nanosecond shirk the debilitating sadness that comes from spending your loved one’s final moments on earth with them, and the weird disconnection that flows from having no idea what you should do next.
Anyone who has lost someone in those circumstances will recognise that odd feeling of straddling life’s freewheeling momentum and death’s hard stop and having no idea what your life will look like from that point on.
Chris Kelly has gifted us with a near-perfect masterclass in the way death and dying and life in all its messiness come together in these sorts of emotionally-excoriating situations, delivering up in Other People one of the most moving, heartfelt, thoughtfully insightful films on loss of this year or indeed any other year.