By: 3-Deep (Three Beers) –
Those People hits a lot of familiar indie notes. It’s a coming-of-age tale centered on a 23-year-old Jewish, homosexual, upper-class New York City fine arts student named Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), a contemplative type who must wrestle with the deep-seated feelings he shares for his childhood friend of 15 years, Sebastian (Jason Ralph), who’s the son of a recently-disgraced Wall Street investor, all while in the midst of a flourishing relationship he shares with Tim (Haaz Sleiman), an older, handsome, wiser and talented piano player on the verge of hitting it big. If it crossed off just more cliche from the independent cinema checklist, it would have gotten a coupon for a free popcorn the next time it stopped by. And ultimately this is what makes it hard for writer/director Joey Kuhn’s feature debut to truly stand out amongst the crowd.
While certainly not without some nice, tender, heartfelt moments throughout, there’s a been-there, done-that feel to Kuhn’s debut that prevents it from really hitting home. It’s all sadly just a little too familiar, and a little too run-of-the-mill and on-the-nose, to truly make a deep-seated impression. And yet, despite its restless familiarity and ham-handed plot developments, there’s almost enough here to let it skate by, almost in spite of itself.
There’s not one performance in Those People that rings false, and that becomes its key strength throughout. Gordon brings a nice balance of earnestness and contemplation to his role, which makes his innocence feel more honest and sincere. It’s a pretty touching performance, with Ralph’s more sage, mature yet vulnerable performance also working very well beside it. And Sleiman, with his piercing eyes and open, bleeding heart gentleness, doesn’t make it hard to see why Charlie would be so won over by his deep affections. Britt Lower too, as their party-ready mutual friend Ursula, is just as lovely and adorable here as she is on FXX’s exceptional sophomore series Man Seeking Woman. She also knows how to play a damn good drunk, too. These performances are what give Kuhn’s rather trite screenplay some much-needed life.
And there’s never, ever a moment where New York City looks less than gorgeous here. Cinematographer Leonardo D’Antoni paints the Big Apple with jaw-dropping elegance, and he lets the city breathe with radiance in each passing shot. There’s no denying the beauty within Kuhn’s film, and it helps make something of an impression throughout — even when the script can often work against it. But despite the limitations given to himself on the page, his patient, caring, sensitive direction is what often saves his film. He helps bring a fragile weight and little moments of believability to his scenes and performances, which makes his feature become somewhat sweet-natured, sporadically compelling and also sometimes quite moving. It’s what keeps it rocking back and forth between a merely mediocre movie and a pretty good one. But let’s get into that a little more.
As if I need to spell it out any more, I’ll say it again: Kuhn’s script is quite easily Those People‘s biggest downfall. It’s clunky, overly-blunt, predictable, and lacking enough firm realism. It plays a huge disservice to itself, because there’s enough here to make a heartfelt, compelling young romance based on the talent of the cast and the deeply-felt love for their backdrops, but the script continually holds back its emotional connection. It ends up feeling a tad hollow and swallow by the end, like a pretty stranger at a party that’s not quite as smart or worldly as you would hope they’d be. And it’s certainly not for a lack of trying on the filmmaker’s part.
I believe, with wholehearted convictions, that Kuhn meant nothing but the best with his first film. And why wouldn’t he? This is an effort of love, I would have to presume, and there’s nothing here to suggest otherwise. Not even for a second. But either thanks to his youth or general inexperience — or, quite possibly, a bit of both — it just not as riveting and raw as it desperately hopes it would be. The story is entirely too by-the-numbers and stale for any of its ongoing plot “twists” and “turns” to seem anywhere near as shocking or unexpected as it would think, and the committed performances can’t do enough to work against that on their own. And, especially in a time where independent movies are in desperate need for originality in order to earn a wide audience within the Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Hulu crowd, Those People is a little too limited in its scope, vision, and ingenuity to be worth celebrating. At least, not entirely.
Those People feels exactly like the kind of movie film students make when they exit NYU. Well-meaning to a fault, artistic for the sake of being artistic, passionate but not quite inspired, and prone to dramatic tendencies, it definitely plays like someone’s first movie. And without a sense of humor about itself, or anything new or interesting to say about its town, characters, or culture, it sinks like a rock after awhile. I’m not saying this movie needed to move a mountain or anything, but it needed just a touch of salt or, to quote the great Vision himself, a pinch of paprika to have some lasting savory taste.
It’s not as though Kuhn’s movie is flavorless, per se. It has a little bit of a kick now-and-again —particularly around some striking middle segments, including one heartbreaking almost-sex scene. But it’s in desperate need of a finer purpose. Kuhn establishes that he has a distinct visual eye, but he lacks a striking voice to go with it. He still has time, of course, and there are many scenes that suggest his next film will be the one where he hits it big. But in the present, it’s just not quite enough. It’s almost there, but it’s not. It needs a jumpstart, some much-needed sense of purpose, to truly ignite a fire in its belly.
I wish nothing but the best for Kuhn in the future. He might very well have a promising one ahead of him, but much like his lead character, he needs to find his way first. Like I said, there’s a lot of promise inside Those People, and it lives up to some of that promise in choice moments. Just sadly not enough to push it over the edge and have it work against its mundane, platitudinous story conventions. As there are tons of people in New York City, there are also tons of stories packed inside. And though Kuhn might have a good one in him one of these days, I’m afraid his first one gets lost amidst the throng.
Those People (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime someone drinks or holds a drink on-screen.
Take a Drink: anytime two characters flirt or share sexual tension together.
Take a Drink: every time Charlie and Sebastian look like they’re gonna smooch.
Take a Drink: every time Britt Lower is simply adorable.
Take a Drink: during every extremely intimate moment.
Take a Drink: every time a Wes Anderson-esque month title card comes on the screen.
Take a Shot: during that painful scene in the middle. You’ll know it when it comes. Get ready.
Watch Those People in Theaters Now, or on DVD/VOD on June 14th!