People Places Things
2015 • 85 minutes • The Film Arcade
People Places Things is yet another retelling of that tired old story—a man in midlife crisis. The man? Will Henry, a graphic novelist and teacher of the same living in New York with his girlfriend Charlie and their twin daughters. That is until the day of their daughters’ fifth birthday, when Will catches Charlie sleeping with another man. A year later, a still-healing Will tries to make some active life choices: asking for more time with his daughters, for instance, and trying to date again, with the mother of a student. As Charlie prepares to marry the man she cheated on him with, the two of them try to get a handle on life.
Men in midlife crisis films rarely interest me, so why did I even want to see People Places Things? Well, Jemaine Clement, that’s why. At some undefined point in college, I mainlined the first season of Flight of the Conchords. My unwavering devotion to The Lord of the Rings and gentle, silly comedy meant that I was predisposed to love them. (Imagine my delighted shock when I discovered that Bret McKenzie was also the beloved Figwit—or Lindir, if you’re playing by Hobbit trilogy rules, which you should never really do.) The trailer did well to play up his dry, affable, and witty charm, and the film does the same. People Places Things can feel like a movie about nothing, but it is about Will trying to sort his life out in a way that’s fulfilling to himself, honest to others, and kind.
What sets it apart—in my anecdotal experience, as, like I said, men in midlife crisis films rarely interest me—is that kindness. It’s not saccharine or sappy, but this is the kind of movie where everybody’s treated like a human being. When Will steps on people, he’s called out on it, he apologizes for it, and he doesn’t get away with it. While he and Diane, mother of student Kat, eventually get on like a house on fire, when he hurts her (by kissing Charlie), he accepts and validates her anger. Will’s twins, Colette and Clio, are adorable moppets who are struggling with the changes going on in their family’s life with the addition of a stepdad and a new sibling on the way. And Charlie is going through a midlife crisis of her own, struggling to find her own identity outside of helpmeet and mother. She’s not an extra in Will’s life, but a major part of it. I really enjoyed seeing Will and Charlie struggle together towards coparenting.
And honestly, that’s all I can really say about it. It’s kind. There are jokes—Jessica Williams, who plays Kat, destroys every scene she’s in (“I’m 19! I know everything about everything!”)—but I only laughed out loud when Will and Charlie, frazzled, distract the kids by taking them for ice cream and loudly declare, in unison, that they can get whatever they want. Clement and Stephanie Allynne, who plays Charlie, have really great, dry chemistry, so it’s sweet to see them together.
But I can say more about The New York Times review of the film, written by film critic Stephen Holden. In it, Holden characterizes Charlie as a “whiny, high-strung control freak and compulsive scold.” I’m not pointing this out to slam Holden—as if little queer Internet weirdo me even could!—but to point out the obvious double standard of (fictional) midlife crisises. When a man has a midlife crisis and falls apart, that’s a narrative worth telling. When a woman has a midlife crisis and falls apart, that means she’s insufficient as a woman, because women are supposed to keep their ish—and the ish of all others around them—together.
Which boggles my mind, because that, to me, is the point of Charlie as a character: that ending things with Will was necessary but just as painful for her. She’s not a narrative plot point meant to break Will. She’s a person. She’s confused and anxious, and the film allows her to be without casting judgment on her. When it seems like Charlie is riding Will too hard about routine in the kids’ lives, we get a scene where she tells Will about how much work she puts into creating a structured and educational environment for them. Towards the end of the film, she expressly frames their relationship as a failure, and it’s up to a now slightly wiser Will to reassure her that just because it ended doesn’t mean that it didn’t work. And that’s such a hugely important lesson to learn in life, and one that the film only gets to by treating Charlie like a person.
So seeing Charlie being flattened to an antagonistic extra in Will’s life when the film makes a concentrated effort to not do that? Kind of feels like a slap in the face.
(…I’d love to see this film from her perspective.)
I watched this film on Netflix.