PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — There is no joy in watching Molly Shannon die for 97 minutes, especially in a movie that's not really her story.
That's not a spoiler. Her character's death is the opening frame of "Other People," the feature directorial debut of Chris Kelly, who has written for "Saturday Night Live" and "Broad City." The film, which follows a family across the year their mother is dying of cancer, opened the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night to a packed crowd at the Eccles Theatre.
The opening night film has a scattered history and can range from Oscar-worthy ("Whiplash") to Razzie-ready ("The Bronze"). "Other People" doesn't fit into either extreme, but instead languishes in that murky middle territory where there is promise, emotional truth and comedic prowess, but there's also clunky character development, banal clichés and little insight in the end.
That first scene sets the tone. It opens on a family of four (Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) sobbing over their dead mother's body. Then a phone rings. Then it goes to the answering machine. Then the woman, calling to offer her sympathies, pauses to order some takeout.
That Kelly embraces humor and comedy within this terribly sad situation is one of the film's strongest attributes. Dramas, especially of the cancer variety, too often languish in the melancholy. Kelly, who was drawing on his own experiences in writing this script, said that shifting from laughter to sadness was just how life was for him and his family.
"I remember laughing so hard and then going to fill out end of life paperwork," Kelly said after the screening.
But "Other People" has a protagonist problem. The film focuses not on the one dying, but on the eldest son David (Plemons) — a gay, 28-year-old struggling TV writer who has left New York and his long-term boyfriend to live with his family in Sacramento, California. While Plemons is a likable actor, watching the (slight) emotional journey of a deeply selfish person is not the most fulfilling exercise — especially when underlying issues with his unsupportive father (Whitford) aren't really explored. It makes his arc feel uncomfortably trite for the subject matter.
Shannon gives a strong, truthful performance as Joanne, and it's devastating to watch her whittle away while trying to retain some sense of dignity and spirit. At the audience Q&A, the "Saturday Night Live" veteran talked about how she actually started out as a dramatic actress in her New York University days.
But the big scene stealer was the young actor J.J. Totah ("Glee"), who in one scene gyrates and twerks along to a pop song dressed in a long blond wig and skintight sequins.
"Boy, girl, not determined yet...It's OK to be whoever the heck you are," said Totah.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr