By Don Simpson | August 14, 2015
Director: Jim Strouse
Writer: Jim Strouse
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus, Stephanie Allynne, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby
With People Places Things, writer-director James C. Strouse completes a trifecta of films about floundering single fathers. Grace is Gone might just be the best of the three films; but People Places Things, albeit much simpler, is a very close second, succeeding in its authentic, personal and sentimental approach to the subject.
Will (Jermaine Clement) is a graphic novelist who has yet to recover from witnessing his wife — ahem, now ex-wife — Charlie (Stephanie Allayne) cheat on him, during his twin daughters’ (Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby) birthday party no less. Why Charlie would prefer a frumpy monologist like Gary (Michael Chernus) instead of Will is a total mystery, but as with the film’s title, we are left to fill in the blanks ourselves… and that’s a good thing.
The genius of People Places Things is that we do not know what happened. According to Charlie, their breakup has been a long time coming. Will has done something to push her away, but the problem is that Will has been too naive, or possibly self-centered, to know what he was doing wrong. So, Charlie’s indiscretion turns out to be a shocking turn of events for him. Sure, Will knew their relationship was stuck in a rut, but his philosophy is that romance has its ebbs and flows; he always assumed that things would eventually get better.
The audience views People Places Things primarily from Will’s perspective, so it seems more sympathetic towards him, but it is hard to deny that Charlie probably has a good case for leaving. But maybe this is where the viewer’s personal history comes in — we fill in the blanks of the narrative with our own interpretations of what must have happened. Possibly you will recognize one (or both) of these characters. Perhaps they will remind you of someone you know, or — gasp! — yourself.
No matter what, it is difficult not to sympathize with Will, now that a year has passed since their breakup. His relationship with his daughters has been relegated to the occasional weekends and he is struggling as a college professor because depression has gotten the better of him. Luckily for him, Charlie decides to take an evening improv class, which means Will gets to spend some weekdays with the girls. Although Will very quickly learns that the responsibilities associated with taking care of kids on weeknights can be exponentially more difficult than on weekends, especially when your small apartment in Astoria is a 45-minute commute by subway to their school.
Solo parenting changes Will in ways that Charlie probably wanted him to change during their relationship. As a single dad, Will has been forced to take responsibility and man up in ways that he never did while they were married. Despite being engaged to Gary, seeing Will mature meddles with Charlie’s emotions; being that Will is still obviously hung up on her does not help matters.
Going back to the concept of filling in the blanks, People Places Things uses Will’s career as a graphic novelist to inform the film’s narrative shape. Just as a graphic novel or comic book makes narrative leaps from frame to frame, so does Strouse’s film. As mentioned earlier, this is most evident in the first act of the film, but there are other timeline jumps as well. Using Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art as its guide, People Places Things discusses the fundamental visual vocabulary of comic books and, with unabashed self-reflexivity, transforms that theory directly into the cinematic form. At times it feels like Strouse could have even gone farther with this, but he opts to err on the side of safety.