The idea of something being “based on a true story” is one of the biggest misnomers in film. The loose definition of the word “based” would make Bill Clinton proud. It is hard to know when you’re being misled, so when you get the opportunity to find something that is honest, it is a refreshing experience. Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us is an example of this.
Following the death of his father, Sam (Chris Pine) returns to his childhood of his estranged family, only to discover while going through his father’s will that his father secretly had a second family. He has a half-sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), who he never knew. Frankly, the first thing I thought when I walked out of the movie was essentially that it felt like a very well done Lifetime movie. That isn’t to say Lifetime movies aren’t enjoyable, but the story is a variant of one of those quirky family stories we’ve all seen there before. It wasn’t until I was outside the theater that someone informed me that not only does the film purport to be based on a true story, but that true story is actually from director Alex Kurtzman’s own life. Instantly, that spun the film in a much more honest and personal direction in my perception.
The most engaging part of the film is the discussion of the complexity of relationships. Despite the authenticity of our memories, they don’t tell the whole story—that individuals need to be judged by an entire life, not just one segment. I had thought this was a curious project choice for Kurtzman’s directorial debut, from one of the most prolific writer/producers of the last decade as part JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot production team, where he has worked on projects such as Alias, Fringe, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible III. He’s made a career out of doing creative sci-fi projects, so to take on a small drama felt like a bit of shift. Even though it is his first time as a film director, you would never know it. His years of show-running have clearly sharpened his skills, much in the same way Abrams burst onto the scene with Mission: Impossible III (which, in contrast, was one of the highest budgeted film debuts for a director).
In a small drama like this, the acting is the key element, and I continue to be impressed by Chris Pine’s versatility. Action, comedy, drama…I have yet to see a genre that he doesn’t excel at. That isn’t to say he hasn’t done some bad movies, but he isn’t usually the problem in them. Here he does an impressive job as an adult trying to reconcile his feelings from his childhood towards his parents, while simultaneously learning that those experiences are much more complex than he initially understood. Given that Pine could easily put his career on autopilot as an action star, it is a pleasant surprise to see him pick a smaller project that gives him more opportunity to emote.
Pine’s counterpoint is Elizabeth Banks, of whom I’m generally a fan, even though she seems to have one of the most erratic careers in Hollywood. She is successful enough that she seems to be constantly working, but I wish her project selection was a little bit more consistent. Her prowess as a comedic actor is well known, and it is nice to see her flex her dramatic chops as well. She is wonderfully restrained here, and it is a reminder of how good of an actress she is when given good material.
Besides Pine and Banks, there is a intriguing group of supporting actors at play here. For the first time in years, Michelle Pfeiffer feels relevant again. I’m unsure of whether it was by choice or by lack of opportunities, but it has been years since she has had a role with real substance. Given the material, she plays one of the most morally complex roles in the movie. On the other hand, in a year of breakout projects from Mark Duplass, this has to be one of the more mundane roles he has done. Frankly, he is barely in the film. He certainly is an underutilized resource here, and it makes me wonder if there was additional material left on the cutting room floor. Finally, despite going up against such a powerful cast, Michael Hall D’Addario does a remarkable job holding his own has Frankie’s troubled son Josh. He has the challenge of playing one of the pivotal roles in the movie ,and while I won’t go so far as to say he is a scene stealer, he does a good job of holding his own.
If you are looking for something new and different, People Like Us probably isn’t going to satisfy you. The story is a bit predictable and clichéd, but if you appreciate films that are well-executed, you will be pleased. The film may not be a huge crowd-pleaser like Star Trek, but Alex Kurtzman’s willingness to show his own vulnerabilities is an attractive quality in a director, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Final Grade: B