Editor’s note: Our review of People, Places, Things originally ran during this year’s Sundance, but we’re re-posting it now as the film is currently available in limited theatrical release and on VOD.
Director Jim Strouse is excellent at conveying the emotional range of the adult male experience. It’s not something you might hear a lot, especially in the context of it being refreshing, mostly because just about every movie is delivered from the male perspective. But there’s something a little more special, insightful and tender about Strouse’s work. This began with the pain explored in the John Cusack-led Grace is Gone, continued with the failure management of the Sam Rockwell-led The Winning Season and has come to fruition once again in the fatherhood dramedy People, Places, Things starring Jemaine Clement.
Strouse has mastered the art of pairing the right leading man with the perfect emotional story. But there’s so much more to it.
In People, Places, Things, Clement plays a comic artist and art institute teacher who is dealing with the failure of his relationship with the mother of his children. It’s a story about failing, getting back up again, failing some more and navigating your way through the often uncertain waters of adulthood. It’s a story you’ve undoubtedly seen before, but not quite the way you’ll see it through Strouse’s eyes.
The key piece to the puzzle that is this effortlessly touching film is Strouse’s sharply written dialogue and the way his cast delivers it. Clement displays a range of emotional brilliance that is often overshadowed by his work on Flight of the Conchords. We witness his character, Will, go through the anger and confusion of being left (emotionally and quite literally) by his partner and the mother of his children, played by Stephanie Allyne. We also watch him deal with the fallout – ups and downs – all while maintaining his commitment to being a loving father for his young twin girls. Clement infuses his performance with a well of under the surface emotion. He’s funny, as you expect, but contemplative and natural in the film’s tougher moments.
Of course, a single great performance won’t carry a movie on its own. You see, Strouse isn’t just great at providing the white male experience, he has also found a voice for several strong female characters. Including, but certainly not limited to two strong black female characters. The Daily Show regular Jessica Williams plays one of Will’s students who becomes concerned about him after a distressing “Why Does Life Suck So Much?” lecture in class. Seeing someone she looks up to as an artist in such a state, she attempts to set him up with her own mother. Regina Hall plays the mother, a strong, complex woman who has also had her own share of damage in past relationships. Together, Clement and Hall are a wonderful pair. There’s no simple courting, but the push pull that reminds us of how things work in the real life. Navigating the world of new relationships is hard work, it’s often messy and it tests you. It’s a relationship portrayed with great honesty and it gives this movie, which otherwise fits into a very specific box, a lot of life.
It’s easy to find movies that try very hard to be funny or to tug on heart strings. It’s rare to find a movie so effortlessly lovely as People, Places, Things. Strouse’s script is thoughtful and filled with engaging dialogue. The cast delivers well-rounded, emotionally resonant (and at times very funny) performances. The upbeat score from Mark Orton (Nebraska) deliver an energy that propels the movie forward. Even the original artwork in the film, the work of Gray Williams, lends another layer to the story, as it becomes one of Will’s emotional outlets. There are times when his emotions lie below the surface, behind Clement’s soft, thoughtful expressions, when the art gives us insight into what’s boiling below the surface.
To say that People, Places, Things is a lovely experience makes it sound less challenging than it is. It provides a range of emotion, all of which it earns. And above all else, it engages the audience in an earnest way. It’s the rare kind of film interested in having an honest conversation with you, but isn’t afraid to leave you also feeling warm and hopeful.
The Upside: Honest, thoughtful and filled with rich performances. Jemaine Clement stands out with one of his absolute best performances.
The Downside: It would be easy to place this into a box with movies that fit a similar formula, but that would disrespect the honesty in the writing and the quality energy this one delivers.
On the Side: Artist Gray Williams, whose work is featured as Will’s comics in the movie, was a screenwriting student of director Jim Strouse. Strouse offered to look at his work one day and was instantly sold on Williams’ talent. He came back much later to ask Williams to provide the art for the film.