The main reason to see People Like Us, about a hotshot who does some growing up after returning home for his father’s funeral, is the performance of Elizabeth Banks as an down-on-her-luck single mother with a lot of baggage, valiantly trudging along until she meets what seems like the perfect guy, played by Chris Pine in a breakout turn. She’s raw; we care about what happens to her and so does this film—a sometimes standard-issue family story that doesn’t get high marks for originality or form, yet wins where it counts—by giving us people to care about and placing them in emotionally charged scenes that pierce the heart.
The cast, which also features Michelle Pfeiffer in her best role in years, is uniformly strong and the message, about figuring out how to be there for people who need you, is thoughtful and, well, maybe even important. People Like Us may not be the “best” movie this year, but its expansive view of human compassion is commendable.
Written and directed by Alex Kurtzman (producer of Star Trek, Cowboys and Aliens and TV’s Alias), in an about face from his big-budget outings, People Like Us tells the partly autobiographical story of Sam Harper (Pine), a Manhattan sales exec who blows a big deal and has the FTC on his back before learning his estranged father, a former bigwig record producer in Los Angeles, has unexpectedly passed. This is an inconvenience, to be sure, but he reluctantly makes the trip home for the funeral, accompanied by his law student girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde). Arriving late and missing the funeral, Sam reconnects with his resentful mother, Lillian (Pfeiffer). Sam’s got a lot of anger over dad being absent and it turns out that Mom has to sort out some issues of her own.
Sam’s inheritance is his father’s prized vinyl archive and a wad of cash to the tune of $150k, with instructions to deliver the money to a person he’s never met nor heard of—and that would be Frankie (Banks), a jaded cocktail waitress at The Standard whom he tracks down and befriends at an AA meeting. He is surprised to learn that she is actually his half sister from a secret family his father abandoned decades earlier after choosing his.
Right here Kurtzman and co-writer Robert Orci set up the most appealing part of this picture, and that is a vivid portrait of a young woman struggling to make it but dealing with legacy demons of inferiority which have colored her world view, working to support an increasingly rebellious 11-year-old son (Michael Hall D’ Addario).
When handsome Sam walks into her life with intentions to merely give Frankie the money and introduce himself as her brother, he is initially perceived and rejected as a charlatan suitor. But as the two grow closer in a series of affecting scenes, particularly one set in a late-night laundromat, Sam finds himself increasingly tangled in his protective feelings for his new sister and is unable to break the news. It’s a dangerous situation headed for catastrophe as Frankie finally begins to trust a guy—one that we know is about to let her down, and big-time.
How all of this plays out, including Sam’s reconciliation with his mother, initially in denial about the developments, is rewarding to watch not because it’s expert filmmaking, but mainly because the actors bring People Like Us to the finish line.
Pine steps up to display dramatic chops heretofore unseen in Star Trek, Unstoppable and This Means War, posturing performances that required him to feel nothing. He’s a revelation here as a character dealing with two complicated relationships and his own identity issues. And Pfeiffer nails a late scene where she unleashes a torrent of emotions about the difficulty of living with her late husband’s dual life. But it’s wounded Banks, trying to be optimistic, slowly learning to trust, doing the best she can and managing to be sympathetic in a way she’s never been onscreen, who truly owns this picture.
People Like Us probably holds its cards a bit too long as dramatic device, testing our patience as the brother-sister dynamic veers uncomfortably close to something resembling romantic love (at least for Frankie). But the tenuousness of their relationship is delivered with believable chemistry by both of the talented young actors. So if the film isn’t perfect in execution, its heart is in the right place and the acting goes a long way in sustaining our patience with the narrative concealment.
3 1/2 stars.