Movie Review – “People Like Us”

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Introduction:
I have been on a Chris Pine kick as of late (but, come on, ladies, can you really say you blame me?) 😉  All superficiality aside though, I honestly am impressed with his acting and, while I probably won’t watch everything he’s done, I am determined to view most of his major films. Doing so has nudged me out of my cinematic comfort zone and into other genres I probably would have never touched (case in point: Hell or High Water). In this film’s case, normally I avoid family dramas because they tend to be generic and/or unbelievably unrealistic. Seeing as People Like Us is very much a family drama, and very much not my typical cup of tea, how did it stack up? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: From DreamWorks Pictures comes People Like Us, a drama/comedy about family, inspired by true events, starring Chris Pine as Sam, a twenty-something, fast-talking salesman, whose latest deal collapses on the day he learns that his father has suddenly died. Against his wishes, Sam is called home, where he must put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with his estranged family. In the course of fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Sam uncovers a startling secret that turns his entire world upside down: He has a 30-year-old sister Frankie whom he never knew about (Elizabeth Banks). As their relationship develops, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family – and re-examine his own life choices in the process.

My Take:
I had this movie in my iTunes rental queue for a bit before I finally decided to check it out. I’m not sure why I put it off, but I suspect it had something to do with my apprehensions about this genre in general. My viewing experience with family dramas has been slim as I tend to shy away from realistic stories and focus more on the fantastical and purely fictional. Not to mention I’m not an openly emotional person, so watching films that make me feel like they’re trying to force me into soaking tissues with tears rubs me the wrong way because I don’t like a story trying to guide my feelings with as much subtly as a maestro conducting an orchestra.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by People Like Us and my preconceived notions were all but entirely dashed. One thing that works in this movie’s favor is its solid script. Not only does it tell a coherent, cohesive story that focuses on a small cast, it’s also adequately paced and allows its actors to emotionally go where they feel led. Concerning the inspiration for the story, this was apparently based on the real-life story regarding the film’s director, Alex Kurtzman, and his own long-lost sister. Despite this being based on a true story, nothing here feels like it’s trying too hard to reenact actual events. While I can’t say how closely the film follows Kurtzman’s personal journey, I can say that, for me, the story stands on its own even without knowing details of the director’s story.

I also appreciated the fact that the cast was small, which not only keeps the story’s mechanics simple but also gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters. Most of the story focuses on Sam trying to reconnect with his sister, Frankie, while also striving to fly under the radar so she doesn’t suspect anything. You can tell he is struggling to comprehend it all, learning that, after all this time, he has a sister as well as contemplate when the best time would be to reveal his true identity to her. To Frankie, Sam is a kind male friend who has taken her son, Josh, under his wing but who displays no romantic interest in her whatsoever. Therefore, their dynamic is fascinating thanks to Frankie’s ignorance of the truth and Sam’s reluctance to reveal too much too soon. While some of this did require me to suspend my disbelief at times, it came across as mostly genuine.

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Naturally this sense of authenticity comes down to the actors themselves, who you can tell seriously invested themselves into their respective characters. As always, I have to give props to Chris Pine, who I feel is a bit of an overlooked talent. I’m glad he wants to branch out and take on a variety of roles rather than being typecast or resigned to being an attractive face who gets cast in anything that comes along. While not everything a good actor does turns out perfect, I have noticed that Pine does his best to salvage whatever is asked of him in a script (such as his performance in the average spy action movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). In this film’s case, Pine didn’t have to mine very far to find good material to work with as People Like Us has a solid script that allows its actors to portray their respective characters as they see fit.

One quality to Pine’s acting that I’ve noted before is that, regardless what type of character he is playing, he is always able to make me feel like his character could be a real person. Nothing ever feels overdone or half-hearted; instead, Pine delivers a good balance. This is especially true here where Sam struggles with a myriad of emotions but never comes across as hackneyed or pathetic. Sam’s pain is our pain, his joy our joy, and he seems like a real person, someone who could actually exist. Only part of this can be attributed to the script because it takes an actor to make a character three dimensional, and that’s what Pine does: he creates a fully fleshed out character who reacts to situations in an organic fashion. In short, if I can believe the character an actor is playing could actually exist, then he’s succeeded as an actor. Pine does just that here, and I thought this was great casting and a great role for him.

Concerning the other lead, Elizabeth Banks, I’m not very familiar with her as an actress outside of her portrayal of Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games films. Thus, I don’t feel I can be a good judge of her performance here, but I thought she did a good job. Was it be enough to get me to intentionally seek out her movies? No, though I couldn’t find much fault with her portrayal of Frankie except that, at times, she did seem to over-act, causing Frankie to behave in a slightly overly dramatic way that clashed with Pine’s more balanced performance. However, Banks never becomes hammy and stays in character in a way that’s believable but just a touch over-dramatized. The final performer of note is Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Sam’s mother. Again, I’m not overly familiar with Pfeffier’s filmography (having only seen her in three films, excluding this one: Dangerous Minds, Scarface, and Batman Returns), but I thought she handled her character well and made her struggles and desire for some secrets to remain hidden very believable.

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In terms of the film’s look and feel, this is physically a bright/naturally-lit film that, while classified as a drama, avoids becoming dismal. It might have been tempting to turn this into a dark family secrets type of tale but, instead, People Like Us maintains an upbeat tone, which helps carry it through the story’s more morose moments. Smatterings of comedy also break up the more somber scenes, and these are smartly integrated and never feel inserted strictly for the sake of trying to get a laugh. Likewise, the soundtrack and score (which was composed by A. R. Rahman) were also incorporated nicely, combining a quiet, string-driven orchestra with classic rock and alternative tracks. Seeing as some of the movie’s focal story points are musicians and music, this presented a good balance of sounds and, for the most part, blended seamlessly into the story.

All of that being said, People Like Us does suffer from a few minor flaws, none of which are deal breakers. The first is that, at times, the movie does try to intentionally elicit an emotional response from the audience chiefly through music choice. Sometimes during a happy scene, the music seemed a little too perky, and sometimes during a quieter moment, the score was a little too melodramatic. This is nitpicking but, for me, I think some of the movie’s best moments would have been just as effective, if not even more so, without music.

In the same way, the film’s running time seems unduly long. This movie clocks in a few minutes shy of two hours, and it feels like a nearly two hour-long movie. I think it could have been shortened by thirty or forty minutes and wouldn’t have lost its emotional integrity. If anything, it might have been stronger with a shorter running time. I confess there were times throughout the film that I started to mentally withdraw as some scenes tended to drag on a tad longer than what felt necessary. But again, this is nitpicking and it’s not like the film becomes a weakened story because of a two-hour running time, but it does feel stretched thin in spots.

Lastly, the film’s trailer misrepresents the final product to a certain degree (as most trailers do, one way or the other) as it makes it appear that Sam reveals the truth about his connection to Frankie early on, and this is what I kept expecting. Yet the story drags this plot point out and, while it builds tension and causes Sam’s dilemma to appear more realistic, I would have liked to have seen the truth brought out sooner, which might have helped shrink the running time. In the same way, and to further nitpick, I felt that some of Frankie’s reactions to particular situations bordered on being unbelievable at times. Her friendship with Sam (who, by all rights, is a total stranger to her and her son) seems to blossom and become too open too quickly even though she knows very little about him. Similarly, we learn that Sam is facing a legal inquiry on his job yet this is never resolved, which felt dismissive as if the script forgot to add a proper conclusion. But, again, this is fiction, which allows for the suspension of disbelief, though sometimes it feels like the film asked for a little too much suspension.

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All of that being said (and, honestly, most of the negatives are just me being picky), People Like Us is a good, solidly constructed, well-acted story. While at times it can feel like it’s trying to be slightly emotionally manipulative, it’s never over-done. On top of its other positives, there were good messages here about being loyal to family as well as acting selflessly for the good of others. While Sam starts off as a selfish jerk, he doesn’t stay that way as his heart begins to change once he learns the truth about his family and sees that living life just for himself isn’t the best way to go. Though the story might seem a bit predictable, the ending does reveal a genuinely sweet surprise, which I won’t discuss it as it counts as a spoiler. But I thought it was a great note to close out on despite not wrapping up some of the other plot threads. In the end, I really liked People Like Us as it’s an uplifting story that shows how family bonds can withstand both long distances and the test of time.

Content Breakdown: People Like Us was given an PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively infrequent but does employ PG and PG-13 words (chiefly the sh-word) and one f-word as well as a few obscene gestures (both of which are spoken by and delivered by kids).

Violence – None. There are a few tense family moments (including arguing and some characters being slapped but not abused), but nothing ever becomes violent and no one comes to any real harm. Elsewhere, Josh gets into trouble at school but no one ever comes to harm because of his antics.

Sexual Material – Essentially none save for a brief scene where Frankie and a neighbor try to have spontaneous sex, but they just fumble around fully clothed while standing up. Elsewhere, it’s a known fact that Sam and Frankie’s father fathered a child out of wedlock, but nothing further is ever discussed to this effect. Lastly, there are mild innuendos (some of which are spoken by a pre-teen character) but nothing graphic.

Substance Abuse – Sam’s father was taking medical marijuana to manage pain, so Sam eventually decides to smoke a leftover joint and his mother smokes one as well. Elsewhere, Frankie works as a bar tender at a trendy hot spot where alcoholic drinks abound (yet she herself has struggled with alcoholism and attends recovery meetings). A few other characters drink to get intentionally drunk.

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe People Like Us stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s story and content as there is nothing here that would be interesting to young viewers.

Older Children & Teens – Recommended for older teens (age 16 and older) rather than anyone younger for the same reasons above – the story and its themes are tailored towards a mature audience and, unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast, I doubt they would display much interest.

Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons looking for a family drama that, to its credit, doesn’t take itself too seriously and focuses more on family dynamics as opposed to dilemmas.

The Run-Down:
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Overall, People Like Us is a well-told story that has clear aims for its characters, sports a good cast, and has a tightly-constructed structure and appropriate tone. For anyone looking for a uplifting story about family that focuses more on the good things while not sidestepping the bad, this makes for a good pick. While the movie does feel like it pushes itself to make its two-hour running time and can run a little too melodramatic at times, it’s ultimately a refreshing watch and certainly worth checking out.

Final Verdict:
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(Three out of Five Stars)

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