It sounds like a Lifetime movie—except not exclusively for women—when you first hear it: A man is assigned the task to deliver money from his late father to a sister that he didn’t know existed. Yeah…and it actually sounds kind of lame, but very surprisingly, People Like Us is not a rushed, cheesed-over drama. It builds up to something beautiful and there is amazing complexity in the characters and their relationships. There are tense and poignant moments, further amplified by the technical details, and some delightful humor through dialogue and scenes sprinkled throughout. And there’s a strong cast that shows there is a lot up their sleeves and in their hearts. There’s been an infinite amount of love stories told in Hollywood, but this type of love story hardly comes to mind—and it turns out that it works quite well.
Director Alex Kurtzman, who has worked on a bunch of projects as a producer and screenwriter, makes his feature film directorial debut for People Like Us. He also co-wrote this screenplay—inspired by events in his own life—with regular collaborator Robert Orci and Jody Lambert. It’s a departure from the sci-fi and action films and TV series his name is so normally attached to, so to see his directorial effort for a dramatic film and to see that it’s a terrific film is a victory. Mixed with some stunning camera work by cinematographer Salvatore Totino and an intriguing score by A.R. Rahman, the film comes off as anything but one-dimensional. However, it’s just not those little details that matter: It’s about the in-depth screenplay that tells a captivating story full of conflicts, and sheds some light on those conflicts by really digging deep into the characters’ backgrounds. And of course, without the talents of Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, and child actor Michael Hall D’Addario, People Like Us would just be dreary. Instead, they give the film its bittersweet life and effectively present a tale of forgiveness, family, and love, one that will make its audiences laugh and weep and go back and forth with breaking their hearts and piecing them back together.
Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles (And delightfully shot on-location and using both familiar and not-so-familiar places), People Like Us first begins on the East Coast with Sam (Pine), a barterer, in hot water after his latest deal doesn’t fall through. The same day, he receives a call saying that his father has passed away, and must travel to his estate in LA with his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) to patch things up. The problem is that he has hardly kept in touch with his family, and his mother Lillian (Pfeiffer) gives him a chilly homecoming to show for it. Shortly after, Sam meets with his father’s lawyer Ike Rafferty (Phillip Baker Hall), who gives him a bag filled with $150,000 from the deceased. This benefits Sam, considering the legal and financial trouble he is headed towards, if only the money was for him—instead, he is to deliver the cash to a sister he did not know he had, and her son. And so this introduces Frankie (Banks), a recovering alcoholic who ironically makes a living as a bartender and is a single mother to Josh (D’Addario), who is going through a problem-child phase at school. Sam tracks them both down and gets cozy, but as he learns more about Frankie’s bitterness about being neglected by her father in favor of him, he is overcome with guilt and in turn, does more soul-searching and rethinks everything he thought he knew about his family.
Again, what makes this film so good is how it really explores every character, their problems, and how they relate to each other despite the initial hush-hush. Even Sam and Frankie’s father, who isn’t alive during the film, becomes a character with his own story, which bleeds into everyone else’s. The running time, which goes two hours, could have been cut. The whole process of unraveling the threads draws on and on for dramatics, but at the same time, all the details and the way the story is told so unconventionally makes it all the more engaging. Although Sam is the protagonist and focuses on all his problems—processing the fact that he has these new family members, mending things with his mother, job, girlfriend who thinks he’s immature—everyone is core, and each actor who portrays them is a marvel (Even Wilde, who still puts up a serious face in a limited role). Pfeiffer is raw as a suffering and grieving wife, and as the estranged mother coming to terms with her son coming back into her life in an unexpected way. D’Addario is marvelous as the troubled child, a joy to watch in lighter moments and very impressive in the moments more reflective of his struggles. As far as Pine, from first line, it appears that he once again takes on the typical cocky smartass type (A la his Captain James T. Kirk in 2009′s Star Trek and FDR in This Means War). But Sam becomes much more than that guy; he progresses into a man who has learned more about what he’s capable of and about the people he needs to give a hand to, no matter how difficult it is and will be. Pine shows that he can give such a character the sensitivity, and that he can carry a film that’s a little more serious than his typical fare. He and Banks share a very friendly chemistry that never comes off as totally inappropriate, though the fact that their characters initially don’t know they are related gives off some complicated feelings. It probably helps that they can pass off as real siblings, physically. Banks’ individual performance is simply outstanding. Much more than Pine, it’s another departure from the screwball comedies I usually see her in. As Frankie, she still has a sassy sense of humor, but also shows fragility and gives one of her most emotional performances in her career.
Although the film is mostly being billed a drama, there are still plenty of gags, one-liners, and moments that will make you laugh out loud. It can feel downright silly at times, but there is definitely a light side to the film, yet it never quite downgrades what it’s actually about. It’s this well-played balance that makes People Like Us an enjoyable film. Summer blockbusters tend to share common themes: special effects to excite, animation for general audience appeal, crude humor for a belly laugh. There is nothing wrong with any of that (Duh, I like all of those things), but People Like Us will offer a meaningful alternative as a mainstream melodramedy that relies primarily on its intelligent script and admirable cast performances to wow. While it may not break any box office records this summer, it definitely has all the makings of something special for a place in the year’s best cinema.
‘People Like Us’ opens in theaters nationwide on June 29th.