If you are searching for an antidote to the swarm of studio behemoths that dominate the summer movie calendar, relief is at hand. Small, smart and inescapably independent, "People Places Things" has its own offbeat and charmingly low-key way of seeing the world.
Engagingly written and directed by James C. Strouse, an indie world veteran ("Grace Is Gone," "The Winning Season"), this character-based comedy about a graphic novelist whipsawed by the emotional demands of the single life, fatherhood included, is both the filmmaker's most personal film and his best one.
Because it is character driven, one of the strengths of "People Places Things" is that it can be as serious as it needs to as well as comic, able to find the humor in the human condition as it deals with difficult, life-like situations.
"People Places Things" gets a lot of its infections spirit from star Jemaine Clement, the New Zealander best known for being half of the Flight of the Conchords team.
Clement is ideally cast as Will Henry, a graphic novelist with a whimsical, self-aware point of view on life, someone who genuinely wonders if happiness is a sustainable condition.
"People Places Things" begins with essentially two prologues, one of which is an autobiographical graphic novel sequence which plays under the credits and relates Will's life to date. (It's engaging drawn by Gray Williams, who lists Charles Schultz as one of his inspirations.)
Then there's a live-action prologue, where we meet Will's lively, amusing twin daughters Collette and Clio (Gia Gadsby and Aundrea Gadsby) at their 5th birthday party in his house in Brooklyn.
We also meet the girls' mother and Will's partner Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) when Will walks in on her in a compromising position with Gary (Michael Chernus). Will is befuddled when Charlie says she's leaving him for Gary, who just happens to be a MacArthur winning off-Broadway monologist. It's not him she doesn't like, she tells Will, it's her life.
Will's life picks up exactly a year later, at a 6th birthday party for his girls in his small apartment in Queens. "It seems just yesterday that you were five," he tells them with a straight face, something that amuses them no end.
The good times he has with Collette and Cio notwithstanding, Will is still in a lonely guy funk about being left behind by Charlie. "I'm just having a bad life, it'll be over eventually," he tells his cartooning students at New York's School of Visual Arts, and he sort of means it.
One of Will's students, Kat (Jessica Williams) decides that he would be a good match for her divorced mother Diane (Regina Hall), a Columbia University American literature professor who, as it turns out, does not have a high opinion of graphic novels.
At the same time, things start to get more complicated with Charlie, who is at a crossroads in her relationship with Gary and doesn't know where to turn, which also leads to Will spending more time with his girls.
Though its got some fine visual humor (Collette and Clio both play the cello, an instrument about as big as they are), most of its pleasures are the verbal ones that come with self-aware characters.
"People Places Things" also gets a lot of mileage out of the vagaries of teaching, a profession that writer-director Strouse, who teaches film at the School of Visual Arts, clearly knows well. He dedicates the film to all his students, saying "you people constantly challenge, confuse and entertain me," and that spirit animates his film as well.
'People Places Things'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes