Sam (Chris Pine), a young businessman based in New York, learns his father has died but is less than eager to attend the funeral. Sam’s father was a famous record producer less devoted to his son than he was to the music industry. Which is why Sam is so aghast when he discovers his dad has entrusted him with one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to be passed onto an eleven year old boy in California named Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Seeking answers, Sam heads there where he discovers Josh is the son of his half-sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom and recovering alcoholic. Without revealing his identity, Sam is drawn into the troubled life of the sister he never knew he had.
People Like Us marked a surprising directorial debut for Alex Kurtzman who along with his regular screenwriting partner Roberto Orci was better known for crafting hi-octane blockbusters like Transformers (2007) and Star Trek (2009) or high concept television shows such as Fringe and Hawaii Five-O. Here Kurtzman ditched sci-fi action for an introspective character driven drama supposedly inspired by a true story. The film foregrounds those strengths in Kurtzman’s writing often overlooked in his explosion-a-minute blockbusters: strident pacing, snappy dialogue and vivid characters in compelling situations, but makes one regrettable though all too common mistake. There is nothing wrong with having flawed characters but those flaws should be part of what makes them compelling. Kurtzman establishes his so abrasive and antagonistic that following them on the road to redemption becomes an uphill struggle, taxing all but the most patient of viewers.
The film starts out on the wrong foot presenting its chief protagonist as this venal corporate shill so indifferent over his father’s death he arrives late for the funeral. Sam is affluent and successful and his selfless and caring girlfriend is played by Olivia Wilde, so it is hard to take his emotional pain all that seriously. Meanwhile young Josh, whose personal problems ought to evoke our compassion, is oddly presented as charmless, even obnoxious with little to justify the other characters’ constant insistance he is such a great kid. Of the three central protagonists only Frankie grabs our sympathy as a downtrodden, self-loathing but brave and determined woman trying to make the best of a bad hand. For a story that ought to be the emotional equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, it is strange this requires such effort on the part of the viewer but those willing to persevere through the more grating aspects will find something worthwhile.
Like the old Barbra Streisand song, the central message here is people need people. On the verge of becoming as awful a person as his father supposedly was, Sam finds that meeting Frankie is like finding a missing part of himself. Together and with one half initially unaware of the real nature of their relationship, they set about exorcising their father’s ghost. The performances by Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks complement the writing by Kurtzman, Orci and collaborator Jody Lambert which does an especially fine job detailing how Sam and Frankie spark an instant, almost subliminal sibling relationship with easy empathy and a shared sense of humour. Given that from every description their father comes across as less than likeable, no matter how much Sam’s mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) insists otherwise, the underlining theme appears to be learning to accept that people, and family in particular, are less than perfect but life simply isn’t life without them. Kurtzman interestingly shuns the usual fly-on-the-wall approach one would expect of an intimate drama by someone along the lines of say Mike Leigh and shoots this human story as if it were a hi-octane thriller. That may make or break the film in some people’s eyes but while the film strangely leaves certain sub-plots up in the air including Sam’s imminent prosecution at the hands of Federal Trade Commission and his relationship with girlfriend Hannah, the arresting pace hits all the right notes in the third act and closes on a genuinely poignant note. Music, surprisingly enough, by Bollywood maestro A.R. Rahman.