If the title weren’t enough of an indication, the name of the game in Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us is familiarity and relatability. A serious drama about hidden truths and family, the film works hard to earn its emotional depth and thanks to a compelling story, well-drawn characters, and terrific performances – particularly by leads Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks – it succeeds.
The story follows a young man named Sam (Pine) who begrudgingly travels back home to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), following the death of his father. After purposefully missing the funeral - which earns him plenty of scorn from his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) – Sam learns from his dad's lawyer that he has a secret sister named Frankie (Banks) and is given $150,000 to support both her and her son (Michael Hall D'Addario). Though at first he contemplates keeping the money for himself, as he has massive debts and received no inheritance, he eventually decides to check in on Frankie and learn about who she is without telling her about their shared lineage. But as Sam gets closer to his sister and the two begin to bond, he begins to question whether or not to tell her the truth.
People Like Us is based on the real experiences of the co-writer/director, and it gives the film a surprising amount of emotional authenticity that starts at the script level. Both Sam and Frankie are deep, rich characters peppered with flaws and problems that make them human and instantly relatable, from Sam’s pain and anger directed towards his absentee father to Frankie’s alcohol addiction and constant struggle as a parent of a misfit child. At no point does the story feel like it’s racing to its climax, and while this does make the film drag toward the end, it's almost worth it because of the heft and earnestness that comes as a result.
The movie also misses opportunities to better utilize both Wilde and Pfeiffer, who both have interesting dynamics with Sam’s character within the plot. The chances of seeing more of Hannah are eliminated fairly early on, as she goes back to New York while Sam is still trying to get a handle on his sister situation, Lillian is left to only pop up intermittently between scenes with Sam and Frankie. It’s possible some of her scenes were casualties of the editing room due to the aforementioned bloat, but I still found myself wanting to see more of her.
And yet what Pine and Banks do with their strong material is remarkable. Given such well-drawn people to play, both actors dig into their characters and proudly project. This is best exemplified when each one of them experiences a personal meltdown. Without ever feeling over-the-top or silly, both performers find their emotional extremes and express it in a deeply affecting way. What’s more, their chemistry is electric to the point that you almost could believe they share a genealogical link. It’s fun to watch their bond grow stronger even though you know that the relationship is based on a lie of omission and headed towards disaster.
The film also marks Kurtzman's directorial debut (he co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator Roberto Orci as well as Jody Lambert) and he shows some real promise behind the camera. While he doesn’t take too many big risks with the photography – to make the movie hyper-stylized would defeat the point – what the filmmaker does do surprisingly well is capture the city of Los Angeles. Almost every location, from the hotel bar where Frankie works to the taco truck where the two leads first meet for dinner to the palm trees lining the roads, bleeds LA and provides an interesting background for the characters to live in. On some level it is strange for the setting to be so specific, for a film that's all about universal emotions, but it in fact adds to People Like Us’ depth.
There are multiple missed opportunities and missteps in the movie, and some may find the ending to be a bit too saccharine for their taste, but the film’s positive aspects certainly outweigh the negative ones. Who knew that the writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were capable of such depth?