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Straight outta Sundance: the benign indie dramedy People Places Things

Are you ready for another paper thin, ready-for-Netflix indie with a well-known comedic actor in a dramatic role? People Places Things stars Jemaine Clement as Will Henry, a cartoonist and professor raising twin daughters in New York City. Will’s relationship with the mother of his daughters (Stephanie Allyne) falls apart at the girls’ fifth birthday party, after he walks in on her half-naked with another man (Michael Chernus). One year later, Will is still heartbroken, struggling to balance fatherhood with a stagnating career. He forms a friendship with a student (Jessica Williams) who introduces him to her mother (Regina Hall), and the two reluctantly begin seeing each other, despite Will’s unresolved feelings for his ex.

Look, there’s no shortage of lightweight dramedies limping out of Sundance on their way to your preferred streaming service, but every now and then you see a name attached to one and hope that maybe it’ll be one of the few to buck the trend. I’m rooting for Jemaine Clement. Flight of the Conchords wasn’t that long ago, but in the years that have passed since that show ended, Bret MacKenzie has gone on to win his (much deserved, despite the slim competition) Oscar and carve out a niche for himself in Hollywood. Jemaine has been no slouch — earning positive reviews for his role in the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, which he co-directed — but has yet to break through in the way his one-time partner has.

People Places Things is not that breakthrough, but it does provide an outline for what that role could be. Will Henry, like every other character in the film, is so slight and underdeveloped you worry that a mild gust of wind could blow him over. What’s impressive is how long Clement is able to cover for him. As a dramatic actor, he’s perfectly in tune with what the role requires. He does all he can to bring this shell of a character to life — succeeding to a point — while never betraying the effort required to do so.

With so little to work with, in terms of both plot and character, each of the principal actors is required to give as much as they can to carry the film. Jessica Williams is able to skate through in a role more minor than her billing might suggest, while Regina Hall does the most with her limited screen time, the only character you’re left wanting to see more of (the film eventually abandons her in a misguided attempt to add suspense). Stephanie Allyne is not so fortunate, falling flat in a thankless role she has no chance of salvaging, try as she might.

These films are usually peppered with bit parts from recognisable comedic actors, and you don’t realise how valuable they are until they’re gone. These minor roles serve to provide familiar faces to viewers as either digressions or distractions, depending on how weak the narrative is. People Places Things needs that distraction. Everything — the plot, the characters, even the editing — is slight off. Even the terminology Will uses when discussing his work; forgive me for getting hung up on semantics, but he refers to himself as a “comics writer”, when he is clearly a cartoonist. The role of Will Henry is one Clement is made for, but the film around him is a sweet but slight one that’s instantly forgotten.

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