“People Places Things” is a great movie to watch sitting alone in the airport. Which is to say, it’s a great movie to watch anywhere. It’s so human, so vividly and pleasantly relatable, that you’ll forget that the awkward, eloquent strangers on screen are merely actors advancing a plot.
It’s the story of a story without an ending: A middle-aged graphic novelist, played by Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, walks in on his girlfriend with another man and has no idea how to move on. He knows how to continue being a good dad to his twin daughters, but he’s not so sure about the point of the comic he’s writing or whether he’s still in love with his ex. “Why does life suck so hard?” he asks the comics class he teaches at the School of Visual Arts, segueing into a monologue about his ex’s latest instance of selfishness. He’s embarrassed to be falling apart, but he can’t figure out how to stop himself.
What saves the film from becoming a cliché tale of breakup blues is the plethora of female characters who demand more of protagonist Will Henry: his six-year-old daughters, whose confusion about his love life forces him to be more reliable; his sort-of girlfriend, who reminds him that his wallowing causes others pain; and perhaps most importantly, his student mentee, who insists that he be both a good artist and a good person. The latter is played by Jessica Williams from “The Daily Show” who is entirely unconvincing as a 19-year-old girl but is delightful nonetheless.
Of course, all of these relationships rest on the movie’s artfully fumbling dialogue. It’s the rare kind of script that is simultaneously authentic and articulate, full of conversational missteps that turn into opportunities for connection. Even the scenes of love-making are an exercise in compromise, instead of the usual quick shots of moans and agreement. “Okay, listen—we have to be quiet; we don’t want to wake up the kids,” one character says in hushed tones, pulling back from a kiss. “Yeah, okay, I’m going to be so quiet,” the other murmurs, eagerly leaning in. “But not too quiet—I like to be affirmed.” “Okay, I’ll be whispering affirmations.”
The only person who opts out of these thoughtful exchanges is Will’s ex, Charlie, who lashes out with bewildered self-absorption. Charlie is difficult to watch, let alone sympathize with, because she constantly blames her ex for how much she dislikes herself. But the magic of “People Places Things” is that she manages to stand in for all the insufferable but inescapable people in our own lives; because she’s his co-parent, Will can’t ditch her, so as viewers, neither can we.
However, more than a lesson in empathy, the movie is a testament to the emotive power of graphic novels. Illustrations by real-life graphic novelist Gary Williams appear as Will’s works-in-progress throughout the film, expanding on Will’s inner turmoil with a subtlety often lost in voiceovers. In one vignette, Will bends over his drawing board and mutters to the cartoon version of himself, “‘Hey, you’re lonely.’” This brief scene offers both a glimpse into his creative process and a challenge to the artist’s relationship to self: can Will find closure outside of these pages? Or will he have to draw himself toward happiness?
Much like its main character, “People Places Things” is charmingly obvious in its vindication of graphic novels as an art form. After Will admonishes his love interest for failing to “take comics seriously,” she reads Alison’s Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and immediately regrets her earlier contempt. “‘You were right. Comic books are an underappreciated part of American literature,’” she tells him in an exchange that approaches pro-comics propaganda in its earnestness. “I had no idea what people were doing in the form. There’s some really complex, emotionally enriching stuff going on there.” Though graphic novel fans will dismiss this revelation as obvious, it may be the wakeup call the rest of viewers require. Unfortunately, for this message to be delivered, Americans will have to engage with another unappreciated art form: the indie film.