LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL: People Places Things isn’t really about people, places or things. That’s a grand statement. It’s much more specific. It’s about the romantic relationships of a 40 year old divorced father of two little girls, Will Henry played by Jemaine Clement. Writer and director James C. Strouse’s autobiographical touch brings a freshness to that type of used protagonist. Will is lost, uneasy, and despite passive aggression with his predicament, he’s a grounded and sensitive character. Add that to Will’s graphic novel drawing vocation and People Places Things is like Mike Mills’ Beginners but less tragic and more self-pitying to many endearing degrees.
On his daughter’s 5th birthday, Will catches his wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) cheating on him with the most insultingly least likely suspect; a pale, overweight and sheepish man, Gary (Michael Chernus). Jump to the next birthday a year later and they’re long since divorced. Will gets his two daughters on weekends, wrestling for as much time with them as possible whilst juggling his graphic novel teaching job. Life never felt more unfair to Will as Charlie’s announcement that she’s pregnant with Gary’s baby and they’re about to get married.
At class, his student Kat (Jessica Williams) tries to set Will up with her mom Diane (Regina Hall), despite the fact that she’s dating other people. Their awkward dinner is an ideal example of his ineptitude with relationships in light of his divorce. Meanwhile, he gets his wish as Charlie dumps his daughters on his schedule while she goes through various strains in her life. However, in a bind as he lives an hour away from their school, he elicits the help of Kat as an emergency babysitter and thus a relationship blossoms between him and Diane. Life gets complicated as Charlie’s stressful life brings her closer to Will and he must make a choice between the two women.
Fans of Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords and his recent brilliant vamp-moc What We Do In The Shadows will certainly be drawn to this and will be surprised to find him more dramatic than before. Like his comedy he handles it with a dry simplicity. Strouse’s direction isn’t as strong as his script and you often find the cast hesitating at lines as if they want to alter the words to feel more natural. Fortunately those moments are outweighed by the odd comedic jab, some you can clearly see Clement relish in, enjoying the details of his character and situation. He brings the bulk of the film’s appealing whimsy and solemnity.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have the superb Regina Hall who nails her exasperated role. I remember her mostly from Scary Movie so it’s odd to see her in a role like this. On the other hand you have Stephanie Allynne whose conviction never once lands as sincere. It kind of works since her character is a struggling actress but that didn’t need to spill into other areas of her performance. She’s supposed to be the one these men are fighting over and she hardly gives us a reason. The film unwisely leaves most of her scenes offscreen as that’s where the biggest drama of its story lies, but Allynne’s weakness as an actress makes it a blessing in disguise that she doesn’t have more scenes.
The photography suffers from its low budget and doesn’t feel well planned out as if it’s hastily on autopilot most of the time. It’s made up by its lovely score with a quirky lushness that elevates the richness of every scene. It’s a very lighthearted film, but at its most thoughtful it ponders success and failure in relationships. It acknowledges how all relationships have an end, but does that make them a mistake? How do you measure success? It’s an easy film to connect to if you come from a family disjointed by divorce, but not to the point of complete fracture. People Places Things suffers from being obvious and stilted in a lot of places but it has a genuine heart at its core and a great sense of humor that makes it worth watching.
People Places Things releases in theaters on August 14th.