The otherwise mild and humane People Places Things starts off with a cringing blast of humiliation comedy that prepares you for a very different film. While celebrating his twin daughters’ fifth birthday, Will (Jemaine Clement) goes looking for his partner, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), the girls’ mother. As he wanders the house, Will comes across a couple arguing — a woman explaining to a man why she can’t have kids with him — then quickly realizes he’s hearing a conversation he shouldn’t and shrinks away. But then Will finds himself right in the middle of his own awkward, embarrassing conversation: Charlie, it turns out, is in the bedroom making love to another man, Gary (Michael Chernus); when Will discovers her, the two of them argue about their foundering relationship, while the pudgy, naked Gary stands there, himself trying to shrink away. Look past the mortification, and you’ll see yet another example of how we’re bystanders to life until it comes and hits us in the face.
After that very funny bit, People Places Things, written and directed by Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone) settles into a familiar tale of a single dad navigating love, life, and parenthood. We pick up with Will a year later, now living in a small Astoria apartment. He loves spending time with his daughters on weekends, because he gets to be the Fun Parent; he’s not the one who has to worry about school and cello classes,and packing healthy lunches. He teaches comic-book art at SVA to a class that varies from engaged and mouthy to distant and clueless. His own artwork reflects the irony of his situation: A series of comic panels of Will growing up and starting a family have the words “I just want to be alone” hovering constantly in a thought bubble above his head. And now he is.
Will’s loneliness is challenged, however, when two forces converge on his life at once. First, one of his more promising students (Jessica Williams) decides she wants to set him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall), a professor of literature at Columbia. (They don’t initially hit it off — Diane is already seeing somebody and is not entirely sure she can accept comic books as being literature or art — but as usually happens in movies where men and women don’t initially hit it off, we suspect we haven’t seen the last of her.) Not long after that, Charlie asks Will to look after their daughters for a couple of weeks. Our introverted protagonist thus suddenly finds himself in the unlikely and uncomfortable position of having to care about others’ needs, without having a clue as to how to start doing so.
If all of this sounds a lot like any number of other indie films you’ve seen over the past few years, that’s probably because it is. And structurally at least, Strouse piles high the clichés — with Will’s drawings providing playfully poignant interludes and his periodic classroom banter offering regular insights into his frame of mind. But the film’s easygoing cadences can be so disarming. The director uses Clement’s languid awkwardness well: When matched against Hall’s Diane, Will’s deadpan delivery feels like the posture of a weakling, out of his element; against Allynne’s Charlie, there’s a more cutting quality to his stone-facedness, and it’s fun to watch him go back and forth. (The one performer who doesn’t fare as well is Jessica Williams, whose energetic and speedy delivery feels out of place in this otherwise fairly quiet movie.)
People Places Things is a trifle, and proudly so. It doesn’t go for the emotional swells of something like Ricki and the Flash, where entire worlds sometimes seem to be at stake. (Ricki is a very different movie, but watching the two films’ treatment of broken families, the translation of heartbreak into art, and the slow drip-drip-drip of acceptance, it’s hard not to compare them.) Rather, Strouse has taken one of the lessons that Will teaches his students to heart — that what’s left unsaid between the panels of a comic (or, in this case, between the scenes of a film) can say as much, if not more, than the panels themselves. And so, the film has a glancing, wary relationship to pain. Take that first scene: It can milk Will’s initial discovery of Charlie’s adultery for humor, but doesn’t want to show us the immediate emotional devastation of what ensues. That makes for an interesting viewing experience, purposefully keeping us unsteady. We know these characters are going through a lot, even if we don’t always see it. And so, this short, ramshackle, shrinking movie manages to stick with you.