Cancer is what happens to other people. It just so happens that right now, the Mulcahey family are those other people. It’s happening to them. Technically, it’s happening to matriarch Joanne (Molly Shannon) but her last year is having quite an effect on the whole family – on her husband, Norman (Bradley Whitford), on her son David (Jesse Plemmons), on her two daughters, her colleagues, her friends, her extended family, on a whole bushel of people who are grieving even as she still lives, dealing with a loss that is still happening before their very eyes.
David has moved home to care for and spend time with his mother. He lives in New York City, and is trying to be a writer, but the pilot he was working on didn’t get picked up and he hasn’t had much other luck. His return is complicated by his religious family’s refusal to accept his sexuality. Ten years after he came out to them, his mother is trying to make amends but his father is still unable to come to terms with it.
The movie avoids most of the cancer cliches and rewards us with a more subtle look at loss. Plemmons is really great, and I like Zach Woods in a small role as his boyfriend. But I’ve been holding onto a dirty secret for two whole paragraphs now and it’s time to air it: I really dislike Molly Shannon. I disliked her on SNL and I’ve disliked her in every thing since. She just bothers me, but for some reason I feel like a bad feminist admitting it. In this century, all of the greatest SNL talent has been female, but in the 90s, that wasn’t true. With the exception of the truly great – Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks – female cast members were tokenish, ill-used, mistreated up until Tina Fey and Amy Poehler started turning things around. But Molly Shannon was a break-out, and some of her characters even got movie deals. I just didn’t like them. I thought she was brash, over the top, and obnoxious. I still do. But in this movie, as they dying mother, she’s none of those things. I still don’t like her, but she was easier to stomach when he’s mostly occupied evacuating hers. Is that a terrible thing to say? Yes it is. But it’s the truth.
This movie blends comedy and drama successfully, with a touch of cynicism and just enough compassion. Cancer isn’t exactly new ground to break in an indie film, but you’ll find that writer-director Chris Kelly finds truth in small things, and those add up to a pretty satisfactory whole.