sundance 2016

You Need to Meet the 14-Year-Old Who Won Sundance

Molly Shannon, filmmaker Chris Kelly, and breakout actor J.J. Totah. Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images

It isn’t easy to steal the spotlight from Molly Shannon. The 51-year-old Saturday Night Live veteran can walk away with a movie in just a handful of scenes — her wine-brandishing mom was the comic highlight of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl last year — which is why this year’s Sundance Film Festival opener Other People was so highly anticipated: Finally, after years spent making a feast of small parts, Shannon had been given a big, meaty role worth savoring. As a cancer-stricken teacher whose impending death lures her son (Jesse Plemons) back to the Sacramento hometown he hates, Shannon gets to put her beguiling mix of comic loopiness and innate kindness to such good use that one Variety writer was moved after last night’s premiere to invoke the O-word.

So really, the post-screening Q&A was primed to be Shannon’s coronation. As she took the stage alongside the cast and writer-director Chris Kelly, the audience got to its feet. It felt like Shannon’s big moment.

And then her precocious co-star, 14-year-old J.J. Totah, took the microphone.

“Follow me on Instagram!” Totah chirped, wasting no time. “I’m also on Twitter, Facebook.” Totah’s shoes sparkled in the spotlight, just like him. “Go find me,” he ordered the crowd.

It won’t be hard to find Totah after his star-making performance last night. The child actor is only featured in two of Other People’s scenes — he plays the flamboyant younger brother of Plemons’s best friend — but he makes the goddamn most of them: Totah waltzes into his first scene casually hitting on the far-older Plemons, then spends his second scene in drag, staging an over-the-top, twerk-filled performance for his bemused family. It’s rare to see such an exuberantly gay kid onscreen, and as Totah described his character afterwards, he delivered the equivalent of a double-snap sermon and brought the house down.

“My character’s a boy who’s comfortable with himself, and a lot of people haven’t seen it before,” he said. “I think it’s really important for a lot of kids out there, whether you be boy, girl, not determined yet — that’s okay, honey! It’s okay. You can do whatever you wanna do. If you’re a girl — girl, you get on the football team, okay? If you identify as a boy, you put on some makeup and you work that stage!”

As the crowd roared, Totah kept going: “Use color and paint a picture, honey! That’s what we should do more, right? All of the children need to know, all of the little kiddies and fetuses out there. Even if they’re not out of the womb yet, they need to know that it’s okay to be whoever the heck you are.” It was Totah’s star-making moment, but Molly Shannon didn’t mind: Like the compassionate mother she plays in Other People, she looked at that little kid and beamed like she’d birthed him herself.

Totah’s biggest credit to date is an arc on the final episodes of Glee, but he’d spent most of his childhood growing up in Sacramento, where Kelly and his characters also hail from. “I am very aware of the boring life of Sacramento,” he said drolly. And while the film itself is based in part on Kelly’s own family, most of the delightful things about Totah’s character — especially his flamboyant drag persona — sprung from the actor himself. After winning the role, he and Kelly “went to this cute little coffee shop up in Silver Lake,” said Totah, “and we talked about it over some oatmeal and a glass of ice water, and then Justina Carrara was created.”

So when Totah spends his Other People screen time extolling the virtues of “classy” marble wallpaper, it’s because the kid himself sold Kelly on it. “I was obsessed with carrara marble,” he told the audience. “I had a carrara marble phone case. I was renovating my house at the time.”

“I didn’t even know what that was,” admitted Kelly.

“I had to educate him,” said Totah.

Totah proved so winning at the Q&A, holding court like a benevolent Lohanthony, that he was an impossible act to follow for the film’s actual star, Plemons. When the Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad alum took the microphone, he spoke hesitantly about his character, a gay comedy writer, before folding completely. “I’m so nervous,” he said. “Take it away, J.J.”

“He’s ready to do a dance again,” said Kelly, as his 14-year-old star seized the spotlight, swiveled on his heels, and struck a pose.

Meet the 14-Year-Old Who Won Sundance