We all know life can be a messy, complicated business.
But knowing that about life, and actually having having it get all messy and complicated, with no real warning, are two completely differently things as graphic novelist and would-be published author Will Henry (Germaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords) discovers in writer/director James C. Strouse’s People Places Things when, in the middle of his twin daughters’ fifth birthday party, he walks in on his girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allyne) in far too cosy an embrace with her friend Gary (Michael Chernus).
In one, very rationally-talked through second – rather than the emotional reaction you might expect from three people caught in an unexpectedly awkward and life-changing situation, the conversation, quite hilariously, sounds like something out of a group therapy session – Will’s life becomes exceedingly messy and overly complicated in ways he never saw coming.
Though armed with a ready wit and a self-deprecatory view of the world, Will nevertheless finds it hard to accept that the life he knew has ended, that his home is no longer his own, his daughters are shared with another man, and his girlfriend, though adamant she still loves him, no longer feels happy with him.
Making the best of things in his cramped studio apartment in Astoria – in reality just across the East River from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it is treated throughout the film as if it is a lunar outpost far from human civilisation – and the limited time he has to spend with the daughters he adores, he does his best to busy himself teaching writing and art at the School of Visual Arts.
It’s clear to everyone though, including his students, chief among them Kat (Jessica Williams) that he isn’t happy or coping well with all the dislocation in his life, and so she makes it her mission to set Will up on a date with her mother Diane (Regina Hall); that is after clearing up some initial confusion that she was asking Will out on a date, something she rejects as “gross” in an exchange that humourously almost undercuts the good deed she was ostensibly trying to execute.
Armed with grave misgivings, Will consents to have dinner with Diane at her apartment that evening with Kat sitting just a few eavesdropping-facilitating metres away, and as you might expect, things don’t go all that well at first with Diane secretly seeing someone else and Will wondering the hell he is doing there at all.
It’s hardly an auspicious start to any kind of new life or romance, and Will heads home afterwards to pour his often one-liner expressed feelings – for all his hesitantly-delivered quips, he’s about the only person in the movie, apart from Kat, who actually says what’s on his mind without sounding like they’re entirely self-interested – into his comic book art which is used effectively by Crouse to separate scenes and get us inside Will’s head without the need for intrusive narration.
But as is the way with messy periods in anyone’s life, things eventually take on a life of their own and begin to sort themselves out in ways that delight, surprise and make your skin crawl in equal measure.
Sporting a title that seems to speak to Crouse’s supposed desire to address the universality of life experiences, People Places Things is a charming film whose appeal rests largely on Clement’s gift for investing Will with an inherent, hangdog likeability and an endless assortment of disarming, smile-inducing lines.
And it’s a good thing Will is so damn likeable, because many of the other characters aren’t anywhere near as appealing, such as ex-girlfriend Charlie who is so gratingly self-obsessed, a living, breathing fingernails on chalkboard sprung to life, that you wonder why Will got together with her in the first place.
A swear word-sprouting harpie with very few redeeming qualities (save for being a great, if pushy, mother) and an infinitesimally short temper, she deals with her frustrations with Will and his parenting choices – to be fair on one occasion she dumps the girls on him with no notice whatsoever – by yelling, rating, cold-shouldering and otherwise belittling him.
And yet, somehow, he still spends much of this compact drama pining for her and the autopilot life they had together, a life he readily admits later on he should have been far more engaged with.
Their relationship, then friendship of a kind, is supposed to be funny but unless you’re a fan of people being punished for sins not their own, as Will so often is by Charlie, it’s not a lot of fun to sit through.
Similarly Diane doesn’t come off as the sort of person anyone would want to date at first until she and Will, taking a second run at dating, warm up to each other and the snobby ice queen very quickly melts.
For all those character deficits, and some very low key observations about life that are hardly as profound as the title might suggest, People Places Things is a charming indie slice of life drama that neatly addresses what it’s like to have life get way more messier than you bargained for.
Bolstered largely by Clements’ delightfully warm way with a never ending cavalcade of gloriously funny, emotionally vulnerable lines, and Jessica Williams’ sassily up front and out there turn as Kat, the film is on the whole a well-wrought, funny and gently immersive look at the way life can upend things when we least expect it, and the way we often flounder to recover when it does.