Joey Nolfi
December 26, 2016 AT 01:00 PM EST

There’s a scene at the beginning of Chris Kelly’s Other People that sees the charmingly simple Mulcahey family — its leader, Joanne, stricken with terminal cancer — gathered for a holiday celebration. Joanne, played with a fearlessness by Molly Shannon, merrily dons a rainbow-tinted dress she purchased for a years-ago costume party, her patent disco boots glistening under the twinkle of lingering Christmas decorations as the New Year’s Eve countdown dwindles. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — on the final beat, Kelly cuts away to the Mulcahey matriarch hunched over, vomiting into a toilet while her son helplessly watches from the other side of the room.

A warm celebration jarred into cold, hard reality; Other People’s delicate interplay of light and dark, comedy and drama, is a biting reflection of life itself. The brunt of disease takes hold in an instant, punctuating beautiful moments with an inescapable truth no one wants to relate to. The tone, however, captures the essence of Kelly’s directorial debut, based on his experience as a struggling writer grappling with his sexuality, a budding career, and a frayed connection to his family in the wake of his mother’s battle with the deadly disease until her death in 2009. EW spoke to the director about his underrated gem.

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Other People follows David (Jesse Plemons), a loose characterization of Chris Kelly himself, who temporarily relocates from New York to Sacramento, where his younger sisters (and conservative father) care for Joanne as her condition worsens. David’s personal life is in shambles (he can’t land a consistent gig as a comedy writer on the other side of the worst breakup of his life), and amid his quest for solace, he disconnects from the struggles of those around him, distancing from his homophobic father in the face of Joanne’s impending death. David’s faith restores when a consoling friend recalls memories of his own mother’s affinity for birch trees (“Every time I see one I’m like, ‘There’s mom.’”), rerouting his focus.

David spends the second half of the film in pursuit of his birch tree moment, a search that culminates in one of the most emotionally taxing scenes of 2016; Joanne — her weakened voice dulled to a whisper, her frail figure resting against her son’s chest — worries David will forget about her when she’s gone. She proposes a solution: “I’m right there in all your faces. When you miss me and you want to see me, just come home and see your sisters,” she pleads.

“It’s what the whole movie is about,” Kelly tells EW of the scene, which opens David’s eyes — and his heart — to relationships he’d long neglected and brings the film to a fitting conclusion as, for the first time across the movie’s 90-minute runtime, David feels at home as his eyes meets his little sister’s. “David’s searching for what he’s supposed to learn from this horrible thing. He’s looking in all the wrong places, frantically obsessed with what his lesson should be… so he’s like, I’m going through this story, what the f— am I supposed to learn? At that moment, he’s telling his mother, ‘I’m so sorry, you’re dying and I’m not doing well right now, I’m single and my life is kind of s–t,’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t care about any of that; just see your sisters.’”

Shannon says the exchange was a challenge to film, as Joanne’s withering physicality is far removed from other characters in the comedy staple’s filmography. According to her, Kelly allowed the actors to find the magic themselves, creating a fruitful dynamic she admittedly tapped into as soon as she propped herself against Plemons at the edge of Joanne’s bed.

“[The scene] was so beautifully written… [Chris] set it up so gently as a writer. He’s not heavy-handed,” she explains. “Everything [David] was looking for, he gets in that moment. [Joanne is] like a poet. She says the most beautiful, deep thing that he will think about forever, and those lines resonate with people and pull at their heartstrings, and that made me so happy.”

The scene, filmed midway through the film’s 20-day production, is simple on the surface; it’s a standard two-shot, but comes alive in its subtlety, aided largely by Shannon’s searing performance. It’s not the standard, scenery-chewing work typically seen during Oscar season, but a heartbreakingly earnest, stripped turn that taps into the universal pain of losing a loved one.

“They collided at the exact same take with their best one, and it felt stupid to do it a bunch more times or even bother editing it, so we just let it play out in real time, which I always think is a little more interesting and powerful to know those two actors are really talking to each other, and we didn’t have to ‘make’ it in post,” Kelly says, noting the exchange was particularly difficult to direct without getting emotional, as Joanne’s parting words are adapted from a real conversation he had with his mother before her death. “Toward the end of my mom’s life, I felt very frantic. I needed to tell her all of these things, that I was going to be okay and that I was fine and that, on the surface, yes, I was 26 and didn’t have a good job and didn’t have a good relationship, but I promised her I was going to figure it all out, and she did say that… it’s externally sad, but it’s sort of nice because I got to put that all out there, and obviously my sisters have seen the movie and it’s been sweet. It’s a nice little thing we have now.”

He wrote the film roughly four years prior to filming, but it was his mother’s enduring spirit that ultimately drove the film from conception to release — including Shannon’s casting. The Saturday Night Live vet says she knew Kelly wanted her for the lead, but it was a family “taco party” at Shannon’s home — complete with frolicking children and barbecued food — that sealed the deal. Kelly phoned his sisters after the party to gush about the actress’ relationship with her kids (Shannon is a mother of two), but the pair also connected over shared pain.

“Having lost my own mom when I was 4, I do think about these women, these mothers; they’re so tough, they’re so strong in how hard they fight [and] what they do to their bodies just to buy more time with their kids. I [was] thinking about not just Joanne the character, but Chris’ mom, my mom, all mothers,” she says of getting into the mindset the scene demanded. “I asked Chris if his mom said the things [he wrote in the scene]… the fact that her words carry on through a movie makes me cry… I look at the shot at the end that Chris picked of me smiling, and I see my mother’s face in my face. I have a gummy smile like my mother, and I think about how she has the same smile as me… it’s just so beautiful.”

Beneath that beauty, however, the ugliness that often accompanies loss is ever-present in Other People, but Kelly masterfully weaves it all into an accessible tale for audiences he hopes is as cathartic for them as it was for him as a filmmaker.

“I hope people see themselves in this movie… when you’re going through something hard, always look to your left and look to your right and realize there are other people next to you going through it, too, in their own way,” he says, stressing the film’s final moments as a mirror for his journey toward acceptance. “I remember being worried about the me of it all; what will happen to me, how do I feel about this? What will happen to me when she’s dead? [I didn’t] see that as a wake-up call [at the time]. Between the death of my mother and filming that scene, I had seven years to think about what I wanted the movie to be about and what I wanted to learn, and that’s what I landed on.” 

Other People is available now on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.

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