SNL’s Chris Kelly makes a remarkable directorial debut

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People

The odd distribution plan for the exceptional Other People says a great deal about how film has changed with the advent of streaming services, especially in regards to independent film. In the past, movies with tiny budgets and niche audiences (especially gay ones) could only be found in art houses in large cities before showing up on video many months later. Other People opened in a handful of theaters in the United States Sept. 9 – and none were in San Diego – but it also became simultaneously available online to rent for half the price of one of the theater tickets. While the experience of seeing any movie in a theater is always preferable to seeing it on TV, Other People is not Gravity or The Tree of Life – it’s a comic drama set mostly in suburban Sacramento and the focus is on the writing, acting, and interpersonal emotions, not landscapes, special effects, and narrative sweep. Your TV is fine. And seeing it at home might be best when you’re in the midst of an ugly cry.

Other People, a hit at Sundance that closed Outfest in Los Angeles this summer, is the directorial debut of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly. It is both funny enough to have left me with sore stomach muscles and sad enough to earn my own ugly tears. Based on his own experience dealing with his mother’s death, the film focuses on Kelly’s alter ego David (Jesse Plemons), a struggling comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento from New York after his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) has been diagnosed with cancer. David has broken up with his long-term boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) but doesn’t want to tell anyone in his family, not his mother who doesn’t need to worry about David and not his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) who can’t handle, or even speak of, David’s gayness. Joanne is fabulous and funny and she does her best to stay positive as her condition worsens. David, while helping his mother in every way he can, is wracked with self-loathing, doubt, early grieving and loneliness. When he can, he spends time with a childhood friend Gabe (John Early), whose little brother (J.J. Totah) is a precocious gay tween.

The film opens with Joanne’s death, so the ending is pre-determined, focusing the film on David and his relationships rather than on the tension of whether or not Joanne’s cancer will beat her. Kelly’s writing, both in his raw, off-kilter humor and his finely observed emotional realism, is exquisite, part Stephen Falk (You’re the Worst), part Andrew Haigh (Weekend), part Woody Allen. His direction is also striking, with smartly controlled, carefully detailed scenes featuring excellent performances from the leads, supporters and even cameos. Most notable is, of course, Molly Shannon’s truly great, Oscar-worthy performance as Joanne. It features her trademarked ebullience and enthusiasm, but she also is just as effective in subtle, quiet, raw moments as she is when she’s the life of the party. She’s brave, brilliant and devastating.

Jesse Plemons and Bradley Whitford are both fantastic, too. Plemons, perhaps with two too many ticks, is the rare gay lead without overly straight or stereotypical affectations; he’s a recognizable, complex, messy man. Whitford complicates the homophobic father, making him not a bigot, but instead limited and cloistered and simply ill-at-ease. In smaller roles, June Squib, John Early and particularly the outrageous Totah prevent even the short, filler scenes from slowing the film down. It’s a small film, but a remarkable one, worthy of the widest attention possible.

Other People

Written and directed by Chris Kelly

Starring Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon and Bradley Whitford

Rated R

Available to rent and own on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

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Author: The JT Leroy Story

Opens at Hillcrest Landmark Sept. 23

Twenty years ago, the it author of the moment – at least in avant garde, hipster, queer circles – was Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, better known as JT Leroy. A teenage sex worker, vagrant and drug addict turned literary wunderkind, Leroy started publishing autobiographical stories in 1996, when he was 16. In 1999, he released two lyrical, dark and shocking books, the novel Sarah and the story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, to immense acclaim. He had a following of major literary and arts figures, including novelists Dennis Cooper and Bruce Benderson, memorist Mary Karr and poet Sharon Olds and rockstars Shirley Manson of Garbage, Courtney Love of Hole and particularly Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. But in 2005, several journalists figured out that Leroy didn’t exist. His writing was done by the much older San Franciscan Laura Alpert and his personal appearances made by Alpert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. The scandal was bizarre and titillating and embarrassing for a number of people, and Jeff Feuerzeig’s fantastic documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story does the seeming impossible: makes sense of the whole thing.

Feuerzeig is both lucky and skilled. His subject is Alpert, who not only is unflinching in the recounting of her story, admitting every detail and explaining her practical and psychological reasoning, but she also kept everything. We are privy to her drawings, hand-written writings and the numerous recordings she kept of her conversations with everyone from Courtney Love to Dennis Cooper. Feuerzeig edited Alpert’s archives along with old press footage, amateur recordings and new interviews, creating a beautiful, seamless monument to fame, fiction, psychopathology and fraud. Author is an instructive history lesson, but it is also entertaining in a way that I never was able to find Leroy’s writing: it is funny and moving and, most importantly, true.

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Dying young


I am not ashamed to say that I cry easily. I can dissolve into tears while listening to an NPR story about school reform, a play about climate change, or while watching a bad TV show kill off a character that I only kind of liked. Yes, tears streamed down my face during that Glee episode about Finn’s death. I don’t get mad when I cry during a bad movie – at Michael Keaton’s Ghost for kids, Jack Frost, for example — because I know that the movie isn’t doing any work, but rather some image or line or situation is triggering an old emotion. However, I do appreciate it when the work justifies my emotional outburst, when screenwriters construct characters that deserve both my love and sadness and when directors resist the temptation of easy sentimentality and instead attempt profound pathos. The Fault in Our Stars, the hugely successful tearjerker starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, earned my tears, even if the filmmakers took a few shortcuts to get them.

Unless you’ve managed to ignore all of the advertising and hype surrounding the movie, you know that The Fault in Our Stars is a story about kids with cancer. The narrator is teen-aged girl with wry wit and ponderous emotions named Hazel, who is played by the preternaturally gifted Shailene Woodley. At 13, Hazel had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. While the tumors are gone by the time the story begins, her lungs are still damaged, and she must cart around a tank that pushes oxygen through tubes into her nose. Her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are concerned that she spends too much time alone and moping, so they encourage her to join a support group for teens with cancer. Though she is resistant, she goes and meets a tall, cocky, very sardonic boy who’d had much of his right leg amputated when he’d had “a touch of cancer” the year before. Augustus is played with young John Cusack charm and River Phoenix depth by Ansel Elgort, who played Woodley’s on screen brother in Divergent.

They start spending a great deal of time together, with Augustus courting a wary Hazel and them bonding over their love for a novel about a young girl with cancer written by a now reclusive man in Amsterdam. When Augustus finds out that Hazel used her Genie wish – a wish given to kids with cancer, like those from the Make a Wish Foundation – to go to Disneyworld when she was 13, he decides to use his wish to go to Amsterdam with Hazel and meet the reclusive writer and find of what happened to the characters in the book they love. When Hazel ends up in the hospital, she dumps Augustus because she doesn’t want to hurt him. Despite that and despite the difficulties in traveling with barely functioning lungs, Augustus, Hazel, and Hazel’s protective, insanely understanding mother go to Amsterdam. The writer is not who they imagined, and as played by a typically unhinged Willem Dafoe, he is the catalyst for two major changes in Hazel and Augustus’s relationship.

I won’t reveal what happens in the next 30 minutes of the film, but suffice it to say that if you have a heart, you will cry. Director Josh Boone does overuse several tropes to egg on our emotions, including somewhat treacly music and dreamy montages of happy memories. But both Hazel and Augustus eschew the trappings of tragedy, with Hazel mocking cancer story genre conventions in her narration and Augustus making numerous jokes about cancer, often at his own expense. Hazel and Augustus are not raging against the dying of the light, as most characters in these sorts of stories do. Rather, they ponder the meaning of their lives and how they will be remembered while they stumble through frustration, illness, grief, fear, and adolescence. The surprisingly philosophical and yet utterly believable dialogue comes from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapting John Green’s novel, but it is ultimately the delivery of the lines with phenomenal empathy and naturalism by Woodley and Elgort that set off my tears.

The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by Josh Boone
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Willem Dafoe
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex