Chris Pine, Elizabth Banks and Michael Hall D’Addario
[People Like Us makes its World Premiere tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It opens in theaters on June 29th]
People Like Us is the surprisingly moving story of two wayward strangers who are drawn together by a shared secret. Finding each other, it turns out, may also be the key to finding themselves. Yes, the story is about as conventional a drama as it sounds, but it’s reasonably intelligent and adult, it’s got a couple of winning performances at its core and it adds just enough narrative wrinkles to keep it fresh as it builds to a satisfyingly emotional finale. In other words, People Like Us is pretty much everything it sets out to be and everything you could want from the type.
Chris Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable) plays Sam, a businessman on the financial ropes who returns to Los Angeles when his estranged father dies. His father’s secret last request is that Sam deliver $150,000 to a half sister he never knew he had. Elizabeth Banks is the half sister Frankie, a recovering alcoholic and single mother whose life seems never to have gotten on track since her father abandoned her for another family when she was a little girl. Sam at first has designs of his own on the mysterious $150K (record producer dad left him nothing but his massive record collection), but as he gets to know Frankie and he bonds with her son Josh, he begins to have second thoughts.
Pine, who was easily the best part of Star Trek and who has already established himself as a movie star even if he is not yet a household name, continues to expand his range. He’s demonstrated a knack for handsome, cocky, slightly roguish characters who don’t take themselves so seriously that they’re annoying and here he takes that character one step further. Sam is a man on the verge of succumbing to bitterness and of turning into the selfish jerk he’s always despised. His actions aren’t always noble, but he’s still very relatable and you find yourself hoping he does the right thing. Pine manages to be likable even when he’s being a bit of an asshole.
For her part, Elizabeth Banks is also a star in her own right. She’s repeatedly shown an excellent gift for comedy, but as Frankie she makes a strong case for her facility with drama. Always a little bit high strung, Banks is totally believable as an oncoming train wreck. Like Sam, we often see Frankie when she’s not necessarily on her best behavior, but sympathy for her runs deep. You can feel Frankie’s frustration as she tries repeatedly to do the right thing for herself and her son despite a lifetime of shaky decisions.
What’s interesting here is that Pine and Banks have terrific chemistry together and in any other film they’d be convincing lovers. That’s not in the cards for People Like Us however because the characters are related. Instead, the story has to make the case for these two growing to love each other without being able to fall back on phony romantic tropes like love at first sight. They genuinely have to get to know each other.
Besides Pine and Banks, Michael Hall D’Addario is also excellent as Frankie’s son Josh. On one hand, he’s a fairly typical little movie smart ass, but D’Addario infuses him with a just-below-the surface sensitivity and he ultimately reveals an honest wounded quality that makes Josh feel like a living human being and not just a joke machine. Michelle Pfeiffer too is solid as Sam’s mother. Her character was a once-aspiring ’70s singer/songwriter in the Joni Mitchell mold and Pfeiffer captures that slightly faded, casual-but-classy, uniquely Southern California weariness perfectly.
Where People Like Us stumbles a little bit is perhaps in its own lack of self confidence. Co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (this is also Kurtzman’s directorial debut) made names for themselves writing popular genre fare like Star Trek and the Transformer pictures. The opening half of People feels over-written, over-shot and over-edited as though Kurtzman and Orci are trying way too hard to prove themselves with more adult material. The dialogue is a little sharper than natural, the camera work is at times unnecessarily fancy and the editing feels more suited to an action movie as if the filmmakers don’t trust the basic, honest strength of their material (which is considerable) and they’re trying too hard to put it over. It’s not fatal, but it’s needlessly distracting and doesn’t necessarily bode well for Kurtzman’s sensibilities as a director going forward.
The drama too feels a little unnecessarily dialed up at times. Because he at first plans to keep the money, Sam doesn’t tell Frankie who he is. Once he gets to know her and like her, he decides she’ll be hurt and she’ll reject him so he draws the secret out even further. At a certain point, his secrecy no longer really makes that much sense, but the screenplay has to hit its expected beats while building up to its inevitable emotional confrontation between brother and sister. The material has the potential to be good enough with a little naturalism and roughness around the edges and without the extra layer of drama, but People Like Us is pitched at a wider mainstream audience so most of the story’s organic traces have been scrubbed clean and a lot of the subtlety removed. Looking back, the film ultimately feels a little too careful and preprogrammed and that’s too bad because it could’ve been better.
Nitpicking aside, there aren’t enough smart, unpretentious and honest human dramas these days aimed at adults and People Like Us is a warm, funny and moving example that further establish the talents of its two very likable stars. I also have to admit the ending very nearly moved me to tears and that’s just not something that happens very often. I don’t know how much it was telegraphed, but I didn’t see the end coming and it was perfect. A movie doesn’t have to start off perfectly if it can nail the landing and People Like Us most definitely does.