SIFF Film Review – People Places Things
People Places Things
People Places Things wants to be its own version of American Splendor or Ghost World, taking art and lonesomeness to express something about the human condition, but director and screenwriter James C. Strouse falls sadly short of his aspirations. Will (Jemaine Clement) is our prototypical sad sack character, a graphic novelist and teacher of the medium, who on his twin daughters’ birthday catches their mother Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) sleeping with another man. Cutting ahead one year he now lives alone, spending time writing his graphic novel about himself where he examines what he feels, while obviously missing his children who he only sees on weekends. One of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams), notices that he is depressed and decides to set him up with her mother Diane (Regina Hall). The date goes in an odd direction but opens the possibility of something developing in the future.
Then we simply cut to Will’s life: he goes to his job, tries to navigate being a weekend dad and a good parent to his girls, and explores his feelings towards the women in his life, but this has many problems. Much of the film is watching Will trying to interact and this is a problem because the cast as a whole has trouble emoting. When he discovers his wife is sleeping with someone else Will really doesn’t change his reaction to what is going on in his facial expression, his voice, even his body language. I get that he is supposed to be a subdued guy but he really has trouble selling a lot of what he is going through.
Take Will and Diane trying to be a couple. The chemistry is there but it is not really explored, they are just into each other all of a sudden. It makes for a confusing detour when it isn’t clear what this is supposed to bring out in Will except as a chance to move on. Their relationship actually doesn’t take up a lot of the film and is more of a side journey for Will in the midst of his troubles that makes it pretty forgettable. It comes back in some ways but it is more of a means to get to an ending that could have transpired in several different ways.
Will and Charlie are the couple that is actually explored, with both of them stuck in a kind of purgatory. Charlie has moved out and is practically living with the man she cheated on Will with but she is still not clear on her feelings for him. She has breakdowns at times and gets very mad at Will when she feels he isn’t handling the girls the way she wants. Yet so much of what we see of her is anger towards Will that usually feels unjustified because we have so little information about her side of things before the breakup. We are later given some exposition that makes things clearer but it felt too little too late and it wasn’t enough for us to become invested in them.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue was very weak for a lot of the film. The discovery of the infidelity felt like a listing of all the things usually conveyed in a cheating spouse scene. This carried over into a lot of other aspects of the film where the beats felt very familiar or very forced in their attempts to convey what should be some strong emotional scenes. This also extended to the comedic moments, which were either unfunny or very predictable cut gags of saying don’t do this and then cutting to that very thing happening.
The only relationship that felt real was between Will and his daughters. He is very open about wanting to be with them and when they are with him he expresses this in many different ways. He plays with them, tries to comfort them and explains things to them. He is a parent who appears to be a very good one even if there are some screw ups. They result more from honest mistakes than from being neglectful or incompetent. He is trying and the results are clear. We see the kids responding to him and we see why they are. But, while helpful, these moments aren’t enough to give the film the weight it needs.
The overall feeling I had here was frustration that there was so much unexplored. Will’s issues are relatable but are covered up in weak dialogue and unclear messages that make it impossible to connect with him on a personal level or even with the other characters around him. No one has a strong enough presence be it due to time on screen or their dialogue to create a memorable impression. So we end up having so many underplayed emotions with so many characters that it becomes impossible to be invested in anything that is happening to them.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Jemaine Clement from SIFF 2015.