The opening night premiere left audiences sobbing.
Credit: George Pimentel/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

The 32nd edition of the Sundance Film Festival officially kicked off Thursday night. And like our annual presidential State of the Union address, the opening-night film sometimes feels a bit like independent cinema’s version of the commander-in-chief standing before congress and the country. Anyone who treks to Utah to watch micro-budgeted movies wants to walk out of the theater on that first-night and yell to the mountains (and beyond) that the State of our Union is STRONG!

Of course, some years it is and some years it isn’t. I’ve been coming to Sundance off and on since the late ’90s when indie film couldn’t have been healthier, and I’ve also been here in years when the state of the arthouse was less bullish. But the thing is, it’s easy to read too much into the Day One opener. They’re unreliable barometers about how the festival will shake out over the subsequent 10 days. Two years ago, Whiplash kicked things off with a drumbeat louder than any I can remember. But last year, the first-night film was an utterly forgettable raunchy comedy called The Bronze, which a year later still hasn’t made its way into theaters (it’s finally scheduled to be released on March 11 — no need to mark your calendars). How the festival’s programmers settle on what movie gets this glitzy, high-profile slot is a complete mystery. The winner of this year’s lead-off lottery was the laughter-through-tears cancer comedy Other People. Written and directed by Chris Kelly, a writer on both Saturday Night Live and Broad City, the film is a bit like last year’s James White but with less danger and more jokes. Jesse Plemons stars as David Mulcahy, a TV writer approaching 30 who returns home to Sacramento, California, to care for his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon). David’s career back in New York is floundering, he and his longtime boyfriend have recently broken up, his emotionally distant father (Bradley Whitford) struggles with his son’s sexuality, and, of course, his mother is dying.

If that sounds like the set-up for a bleak, three-hankie slog rife with Sundance clichés (You can’t go home again… again?), Kelly and his cast eventually do a solid job of subverting them with humor and real heart. After getting off to a rocky start that turns Plemons’ David into a gratingly self-pitying main character, the film eventually find itself, gathering shape and force and building into a satisfying tearjerker with a sprinkling of outrageous laughs (keep an eye on 14-year-old J.J. Totah, who slays as a precociously gay neighbor obsessed with drag and Carrara marble).

For anyone who’s had a chance to see Plemons on Breaking Bad and Fargo, his performance won’t be a revelation. Instead, it’s Shannon who steals the movie. On the heels of her performance in last year’s Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the SNL veteran sinks her teeth into a rare dramatic role with such go-for-broke ferocity that it will likely broaden the range of roles she gets to play from here on out. As David’s slowly dying mother, she manages to make you feel both the physical agony and emotional desperation brought on by her disease as she tries to get her fractured family in order before she departs. Somehow, the actress miraculously makes her character become stronger as she gets weaker.

Other People may not be the kind of indelible Sundance movie that we’ll look back on years from now and remember without a Google search, but sometimes one unexpectedly dazzling performance from an actor or actress you’d never previously given much thought to is enough. And this year, on Sundance’s opening night, Shannon did just that. When the lights came up, she left behind a roomful of sniffles.