In a crowded movie market full of action-packed, so-called “popcorn movies” (The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), R-rated comedies (Ted, Magic Mike) and hit animated movies appealing to younger audiences (Madagascar 3, Brave), one movie stands out from the pack.
Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks headline People Like Us, a type of movie that just doesn’t get made much anymore. At times intensely emotional and dramatic, other times playful and lively, and some moments part love story, at its core the movie is undeniably a family drama full of heart, a character study in many ways about how people mourn, how people handle the blows life deals them, how trust can make and break a person.
Pine plays Sam, an East Coast-dwelling salesman who’s hit a rough patch at work. When his music producer father Jerry dies in Los Angeles, he’s reluctant to make the trip, never a huge fan of the man or his parenting skills. But once he’s finally home with his mom, a wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer dealing with her own grief and secrets, Sam learns more about his father than he ever imagined possible, including the fact that Jerry fathered another child, Frankie – played by Banks.
“In every city that I’ve been in promoting the film, without fail, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘The same thing happened to me … The same thing happened to my girlfriend … Oh my God, my father grew up in the same family,’” Pine says. “It’s surprising how not unique it is…these secrets do exist out there.”
Unique, maybe not. But universal, indeed. And certainly not a story told often in movies. No question, the situation would be an emotional rollercoaster for anyone. Making things more complicated for Sam is that his dad left Frankie $150,000…and now Sam has to deliver it to her.
Torn between his own financial dilemma, his father’s secret past, and his desire to meet this long-lost sister, Sam begins his journey with one motivation but discovers something much more profound – about himself, family, and life – along the way.
Upon meeting Banks’ Frankie, his half-sister, Sam finds a feisty, guarded and independent single mother. She knows her father’s identity, knows he left she and her mother for his new family, and has become aware of his death. What she doesn’t know is that Sam is the half-brother she never met. Because he can’t find the right time or way to tell her.
This is where, for Banks and her Frankie, the movie takes a romantic comedy turn of sorts. What Sam simply perceives as getting to know his family, Frankie perceives as a potential relationship, a guy taking a genuine interest in she and her son.
“Sam is the perpetrator of the biggest crime in the film,” Pine explains. “People are obviously going to judge Sam for being not honest and not truthful, and rightfully so. I totally get it.”
“The romantic side of it was totally secondary to the hope of it, which for me is a much deeper betrayal,” Banks says. “These two people are clearly connected the whole movie, they are dealing with the loss of their father…she doesn’t realize it’s the same father. But she feels very connected to him. She is also a woman who’s been very disappointed by men, she has a lot of walls up … it’s the fact that he gave her hope that people can be this great, ‘If I open myself up to people, I could have someone great in my life.’”
The story is loosely based on the life of Alex Kurtzman, the writer – along with Roberto Orci – of huge blockbusters including Star Trek and Transformers and TV shows like “Fringe” and “Hawaii Five-O.” With People Like Us, he makes his directorial debut, translating his own experience of unexpectedly meeting his half-sister for the first time when he was 30 years old.
Friends since high school, Kurtzman says he and Orci grew up in the heyday of independent film, which they always thought would be the kind of movies they would someday make. “Our lives took us down a very different road,” Kurtzman says with a good laugh. “For us, this was a chance to go back to our roots. It took eight years to write this thing, and we didn’t do it for money and we didn’t do it to prove anything. And frankly, I didn’t even know if it was really going to happen.”
Through the eight years, one major change Orci says they made was the setting. “It’s no longer in space,” he jokes.
Calling the first draft “horrendous,” Kurtzman says originally, Sam inherited his father’s sturgeon shop. “Part of what we kind of went through in that first abysmal draft was the revelation that…I was trying to move away from the truth so much that it ended up being just fictionalized crap.”
So Kurtzman, Orci and their writing and producing partner on this, Jody Lambert, filtered out the authenticity of the situation, transplanting it into a fictionalized story they found interesting and lent itself to the necessary drama of big screen storytelling.
Of course part of that also meant finding the right actors to bring this version of the story to life.
Pine – who has played everything from the iconic Captain Kirk to Anne Hathaway’s love interest in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement to a son slow to appreciate his father and the family wine business in the indie drama Bottle Shock – is perfectly suited to play Sam with his charm, charisma, grounded spirit and emotional depth.
And he quickly identified Sam. “The damaged characters reflect who we all are in real life I think,” Pine observes. “No one’s perfect. I think imperfection is the defining feature of growing up and maturing and becoming a better person.”
“I think Chris’ performance in this movie is a magic trick,” Kurtzman says, “because you’ve got a character who really makes every wrong choice he could make for the bulk of the movie, and yet I think you’re loving him through it despite the fact he is so flawed.”
“He goes from being a guy who is literally selling air at the beginning of the movie to a guy who is just standing there, open-hearted on his sister’s doorstep at the end asking for forgiveness. The guy who he is at the beginning is the exact opposite of the guy who he is at the end. I think there are not a lot of actors who could pull that off.”
“Unlike his father,” Pine explains, “[Sam] was really trying to become a better person. I like that. I did enjoy that ‘fighting’ for Sam, because I felt Sam needed a voice.”
Banks brought her own fighting spirit to Frankie with the help of Regina Spektor music and recalling times when she “felt really alone and haven’t been willing to ask for help in my life and struggled.” In doing so, Banks beautifully manages to flesh out the core of Frankie’s personal turmoil.
“Everybody just wants to know their daddy loved them. Whether your daddy was around or not around … [Frankie and Sam] are not mourning the loss of some physical guy that was in our life – we didn’t know him,” Banks explains. “But we did believe in our opportunity to confront him, to have that closure with him. And that’s what we lose, we lose that ability. To get that back, to get the knowledge back that, ‘Ah, shit, he really did love us,’ I just think it’s why it’s so powerful.”
If Pine, Banks and Pfeiffer aren’t enough, those powerful final scenes of People Like Us are what make the movie worth watching.
People Like Us – which also stars Jon Favreau and Olivia Wilde and had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month – runs 115 minutes and is rated PG-13.