There are all kinds of families: traditional nuclear, single parent, extended, foster, adopted. The combinations are endless, and there’s no absolute right way to be a family. People Like Us explores the meaning of family and what it can be as estranged relatives work through long-standing dysfunction in order to rebuild a solid, albeit unconventional, family unit.
The film stars Chris Pine (Star Trek) as Sam, a guy who learns that he has a half-sister when he’s tasked with giving her $150,000 following their father’s death. We learn early on that Sam is a smooth-talking and somewhat dodgy “facilitator,” a title that is never really explained. What we do know is that he sells a lot of random items (from maraschino cherries to lumber) in large quantities, and in the opening of the film he makes a serious error that sets the FDIC on his case throughout the rest of the film. Coincidentally, Sam is also in a lot of debt, making fulfilling his father’s wishes even more difficult a task.
Sam’s estranged from his parents and hasn’t seen them in years despite knowing of his father’s illness. He even tries to avoid going home for the funeral. When he finally arrives, things are immediately awkward and tense with his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), in a scene that tries to demonstrate how broken their relationship is but just feels unearned.
When Sam is given the responsibility of delivering a fortune to a complete stranger, he goes to the given address and happens upon recovering alcoholic Frankie (The Hunger Games’ Elizabeth Banks) and her rebellious, mature-beyond-his-years son, Josh. Instead of telling her who he is, Sam follows her to a meeting, poses as a fellow AA member, and strikes up a friendship as he debates whether or not to give her the money.
The long lost siblings get along exceedingly well and bond over their mutually unsatisfying experience with their father. As they get closer and Sam puts off telling her the truth, the question of what exactly her feelings are for him comes up. The question of whether Frankie unknowingly has incestual feelings toward her brother is more assumed by the audience than implied by the director — after all, we’ve all heard the story about long lost siblings or cousins randomly meeting and falling for each other. Plus, the pair has chemistry, they’re both quite attractive, and Sam takes an interest in Frankie’s son. What single mom wouldn’t fall for that?
That being said, for the most part their relationship seems more buddy-buddy than anything else, lacking any lingering, romantic expressions on Frankie’s part or any move-making by either party. Yet, when we do get an answer for the whole “incest question,” because it does come up, audience members literally gasped because they were so curious about how she felt and how he would handle it. She leans in for a hug — is she gonna kiss him? Close call! Ultimately, however, it feels like an obvious and undeserved plot point.
The whole incest issue and a few small details aside, the film is competently made and enjoyable — a serious accomplishment for a directorial debut. (Alex Kurtzman is an accomplished television and film producer but never took on directing a film until now.) Overall, People Like Us lacks a potent sense of gravitas that could have pushed it over the edge from being touching in the moment to provoking truly lingering emotion, particularly because it’s a little unbelievable that these characters could repair such entrenched issues in six weeks.
Regardless, the characters are flawed, relatable and well played, the writing is believable with a good balance of drama and humor, and People Like Us possesses a unique, touching story. Plus, there’s the ever-present threat of incest. That’s in nowadays, right?