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SFF president Mark Famiglio and director of programming Michael Dunaway at opening night red carpet.

 

The 18th annual Sarasota Film Festival opened Friday, April 1, with a couple of April Fool’s jokes aimed at both audience members and sponsors—and a movie that was successfully both funny and sad, with Chris Kelly’s debut feature, Other People.

The screening of the movie at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was preceded by remarks from SFF president Mark Famiglio, who presented a “Hometown Hero” award to local supporter and movie producer Skip Sack, and by director of programming Michael Dunaway—and the supposed offer of a lease on a Mercedes-Benz to two lucky audience members (the cars were more toy size) and some fake cockroaches to tease SNN weather forecaster Justin Mosely, who became something of a national phenomenon after a YouTube video of him reacting to one of the pesky insects in the studio.

But the night really belonged to the film by Saturday Night Live writer-director Kelly, who in a short pretaped message apologized for not being in Sarasota, since he was working on the late-night television show in New York. He said that he did plan to attend the movie’s next screening here, which was Sunday.

Other People is a semiautobiographical movie about a gay comedy writer, David (Jesse Plemons of Fargo and Breaking Bad fame), who returns home to Sacramento to help out his family while his mother (SNL alum Molly Shannon) faces cancer treatment. His character is also dealing with a recent breakup and with the inability of his father (Bradley Whitford) to accept his homosexuality.

That may sound pretty heavy, and Other People can in fact be heart-wrenching as we watch Shannon’s character and the family around her suffer. But Kelly balances all the real-life sorrow with equally real-life absurdity, as in scenes set in a huge store on a search for laxatives, or in the phone call that interrupts the family’s mourning in the movie’s very first scene.

Plemons is convincing and involving, Whitford and other actors (including Paul Dooley and June Squibb as David’s grandparents) fine, but Shannon is quite a revelation as the mother, Joanne—feisty and fun, but also frank about the torment of chemotherapy and the gradual, painful loss of what she holds dear in life. Other People, a hit at Sundance, is quite an impressive debut for Kelly—although seeing it didn’t exactly put one in the mood for the party in the Grand Foyer after.

No matter; it’s on to more movies and parties all this week. For complete festival info, go to sarasotafilmfestival.com