Providing a refreshing alternative to the blockbuster effects-laden action films of the summer, People Places Things is a quiet and low-key indie film that gently amuses during its 86-minute running time.
It is a treat to see Jemaine Clement take center stage in this quirky film. Clement came to fame as one-half of the New Zealander guitar-based folk-musical-comedy duo, Flight of the Conchords. (Bret McKenzie is the other half of the duo). The two men starred in the well-received HBO comedy series, Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009).
The film follows the travails of Will Henry, a graphic novelist and art professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts. We initially see Will at his twin daughters’ fifth birthday party. Looking for his girls’ mother and then-partner Charlie (Stephanie Allyne, In a World…), he finds her in flagrante delicto with Gary (Michael Chernus, Mistress America). Fast forward one year later, and we see the girls celebrate their sixth birthday with Will before he brings them back to Charlie’s place, which she now shares with Gary. As for his teaching, Will comically uses his class as a place to vent about his personal troubles. One of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams, The Daily Show), introduces him to her accomplished mother, Diane (Regina Hall, Think Like a Man), who is at first mildly rejecting of Will. As he tries to find his way to a better life, Will asks for increased time with his daughters and deals with the ensuing challenges, begins to explore the dating world, and is thrown for a loop when Charlie announces surprising turns in her relationship with Gary.
Clement is ideally cast in the role of the wryly funny, self-deprecating, and somewhat melancholic Will. He questions whether happiness is a sustainable thing. When asked if he is all right, he responds “I’m just having a bad life, it’ll be over eventually.” With his expressively befuddled mug, tousled bedhead scruffiness, and awkwardly short suits, his very presence in a scene invites a smile, even before he speaks. Gia Gadsby and Aundrea Gadsby are adorable and lively as the twin daughters. Allyne has less success with the character of Charlie, who seems inconsistently drawn. By turns shrill and whiny, controlling and flaky, pleading and angry, her character is not as sympathetic as it needs to be, given her ill treatment of our protagonist. More crucially, for this light comedy, Allyne is not funny even in scenes which are clearly meant to be, dropping comic lines like a lead balloon. Chernus is not given much to do in his portrayal of the cuckolding Gary, and the chemistry is completely absent between him and Allyne. Hall does a fine job in creating a strong yet vulnerable character in Regina.
The film’s beginning titles are delightful, foreshadowing the story through simple and engaging drawings by Gray Williams. The drawings of Will’s character offer the viewer entrée into his inner world of struggle between isolation and desire for companionship. The film delicately instructs on how art can both pull us into its flow while we inadvertently abandon those we love, as well as connect us in important and intimate ways to one another.
Written and directed with a light and sure hand by James C. Strouse (Grace is Gone), the character-driven film feels intimate and personal. Like the main character, Strouse teaches at SVA. While offering many humorous moments, the narrative also makes fine observations of difficult life events that feel recognizably real.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Offbeat and low-key, this charming independent film holds the viewer’s attention pleasantly for its brief 86-minute running time. Star Jemaine Clement creates a gentle and wry character who engages the audience effectively as we come to care about his life and hope for his sake that he can find the happiness that he has found so elusive.