"It's not what you think."
"I think you've been having sex."
"Okay. It is what you think. But this is your fault."
This exchange between a husband and his caught-red-handed cheating wife is a perfect example of what makes James Strouse's People Places Things work: the film tackles the most familiar of familial issues, but does it so damn honestly that it's impossible not to enjoy and empathize.
The movie centers on Will Henry, a lonely graphic novelist/teacher who is trying to move on as a father and functioning member of society after his dissatisfied wife leaves him for an off-Broadway monologist. The narrative follows a well-worn arc: Will makes an effort to spend more time with his two young daughters, clumsily jumps back into the dating scene, and tries to find new purpose in his work- but are there still unspoken feelings between him and his ex-wife? There's nothing here that even the most casual of moviegoers haven't seen before, but the film's screenplay breathes identifiable life into these situations with charming realism. In stereotypical indie film fashion, the quirk factor is turned up a few notches throughout, but the dialogue is so consistently grounded that it's never distracting. Rarely does a movie come along that perfectly captures the way people actually talk with one another, but People Places Things is one of those gems. Will and his ex-wife banter with hesitant familiarity, Will's daughters treat him just as little girls would treat the "fun parent", Will's students express a passion (or lack thereof) for their work that we can all understand, and every romantic step in Will's new relationship is both awkward and exciting.
While the dialogue remains immaculate, the screenplay's emphasis on fleshing out Will's character is unfortunately not extended to the most significant adult women in his life. Both Will's ex-wife and his new girlfriend are severely underdeveloped: from beginning to end, the ex-wife is a nagging mystery and the romantic interest is an emotionally fickle mystery. The movie provides a quick explanation for the personalities of both women and remains content with leaving them as one-note caricatures. It's worrying to see that even in the realm of independent film, male filmmakers are still writing such undeveloped women.
The actresses portraying these women turn in compelling performances, however- along with every major cast member in the movie. There's not a single weak performance in the lot, and the screenplay's realism benefits greatly from the indelible honesty of every actor and actress involved. All of People Places Things' biggest strengths come from its writing and its performances, largely due to how expertly the witty dialogue is delivered. Jemaine Clement is especially wonderful as Will: he almost singlehandedly conveys the screenplay's comedic heart with his idiosyncratic, emotionally nuanced performance. The guy has always been a charmer, and that's used to full effect.
The movie's only glaring misstep lies with its ending. Strouse appears to mistake the power of an ambiguous ending with the meek mediocrity of an implied ending. If the audience were left wondering what Will's final actions would be, it could've perhaps been an identifiable reflection on the uncertainty surrounding life's biggest decisions. But we know exactly what Will's hopeful plans are before the credits roll, and not seeing this emotional payoff after it is heavily implied just gives off the impression that the final scene is missing. It's a disappointingly bland ending for a movie that's so tastefully unique up until that point. Some may also find issue with the lack of smoldering drama during familial arguments, but that's more a complaint with how we've been conditioned to enjoy the unrealistic dramatization of those events in movies.
The reasoning behind People Places Things' title isn't clear, but a more fitting title might have been People. This is a hilarious movie that portrays people as they truly are in a lovingly accurate way, and while this courtesy isn't extended to every character in equal measure, the majority of Strouse's people aren't ones that you'll soon forget.