As someone who isn’t especially fond of Jemaine Clement’s previous efforts, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to see him breaking away as a rom-com lead in Jim Strouse’s winning little indie, “People Places Things”. The funny thing about Clement here is that he isn’t necessarily changing anything about himself; his jokes are still droll and somewhat dry, but it’s the pitch-perfect screenplay and welcome supporting cast that have helped him shine. While the film treads on familiar ground, “People Places Things” doesn’t look or feel like most other rom-coms out there; it stands apart as an earnest and funny examination of loneliness, paternal love, and learning to accept the things we can’t change.
Part of what separates the film from the rest is lead character, Will Henry (Clement), a graphic artist teaching at the School of Visual Arts. During the 5th birthday for his twin girls, Cleo and Collette (Gia and Aundrea Gadsby), Will walks in on is longtime girlfriend and mother to his children, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) cheating on him with another man. She says she’s been miserable for a long time; Will thought they were happy although he readily admits “Happiness is not really a sustainable condition,” a personal motto that has painfully turned out to be true. There are children involved; this break-up should be painful and ugly. The smartest and most refreshing move Strouse makes is to fast-forward past all that so we can see how Will has come out on the other side.
In short: he’s not doing well. Lonely, living in a cramped apartment in the shabbiest part of Queens, Will is barely getting by. But he lives for the weekends that he gets to see his two girls, and as he brightens up when they’re around so too does the film. It’s not often enough we see positive stories about fathers who really just want to be part of their kids’ lives. Not that Will is a perfect dad; he’s pretty sloppy and a little bit of a mess when it comes to getting them where they need to go, but he means well and the love he has for them, and that they have for him, is obvious. He wants to spend more time with them, and just as he’s getting what he wished for, love shows up and complicates things.
Another brilliant move is in the handling of Will’s sorta-relationship with Diane (Regina Hall), an African-American literature professor with a no-nonsense attitude and some relationship baggage. She’s the mother of Will’s student, Kat (Jessica Williams of “The Daily Show”), and they bond through conflict over the value of real literature over Will’s beloved comic books. The first date doesn’t go as planned, but the sparks are obvious. However, Charlie’s continued presence only complicates matters; not to mention Will isn’t so good at the whole time management thing.
That Strouse never once brings up the subject of race deserves to be lauded. The casting of Hall proves to be an excellent choice, too, as she and Clement find remarkable chemistry in playing very different sorts of characters than they are accustomed to. Truthfully, Clement is great with everyone; his chill demeanor working well with the energetic young Gadsby twins, and it meshes well with the upfront performances of Hall and Williams. There’s so much to enjoy here that the slight nature of the story is noticeable, but Strouse, who happens to be a cartoonist, fills that space with some nice artistic flourishes seen in comic book form. “People Places Things” is one of those movies that could get overlooked. It doesn’t have any big stars, and the portrayals are perfectly-composed rather than flashy. But those who give it the shot it deserves will be won over by its many charms.