One may not expect Alex Kurtzman, co-writer and producer of some of the most high profile blockbuster action flicks of the past few years – the first two “Transformers”, “Star Trek”, “Cowboys and Aliens” and currently the sequel to “The Amazing Spider-Man”, among them – to make his directorial debut with a small scale character study and family drama, and it’s perhaps even more unexpected that he pretty much succeeds at it. “People Like Us”, which premiered at the LA Film Festival last night, may not be breaking any new ground in the relationship drama genre, but it’s bolstered by smart writing, some genuinely surprising moments and a talented cast all performing at the top of their game.
In a story loosely based on his own familial history and co-written with longtime collaborator Roberto Orci, Kurtzman sets his Captain Kirk Chris Pine as Sam Harper, a slick trade negotiator who talks his way into success rather than actually earning it. When he receives the double-whammy news of a crucial deal going wrong and his estranged father’s death, he’s dragged kicking and screaming by supportive girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) to his childhood home in Los Angeles, where he’s greeted by an angry slap across the face by Michelle Pfeiffer as his mother.
Soon enough, Sam finds out that his neglectful father has left $150,000 not to him, but to someone named Josh Davis, who turns out to be Sam’s nephew, played by Michael Hall D’Addario. Josh is your typically troubled child who acts out due to his unstable home life. His mother and Sam’s newfound half-sister Frankie, played by a standout Elizabeth Banks, works double-shifts at a bar in order to make ends meet and is hardly ever home when her son is awake. Torn between telling Frankie the truth and keeping the money for himself, Sam, in rather cliche fashion, withholds his parentage and begins to bond with the mother-son duo, coming to learn he really likes them.
Of course, this just sets the stage for a tumultuous confrontation when Frankie inevitably discovers the truth, and there’s nothing new or groundbreaking in the way the story unfolds, but the film is elevated by dialogue that rings true and particularly by strong performances. Pine proves he’s capable of more than just being an action star and is always watchable, while Banks steals the movie with a revelatory, nuanced performance that further proves she’s one of the most valuable and underrated actresses around.
Kurtzman’s background in action writing is felt heavily in his first try at directing, and the film is shot as if it were a high octane actioner instead of an intimate melodrama. Shaky close-ups of hands on doorknobs, feet pounding up and down stairs and even a car chase or two helped to create an almost unnatural level of tension for the story he was telling. It was obvious just how effective the style was in enthralling the audience as there was a palpable and audible recoil at the slightest hint that the unknowing Frankie may initiate something not-so-sisterly towards Sam.
Perhaps that one potentially incestuous moment was inevitable given the soapy storyline, and the fact that the siblings are played by two attractive and similarly aged actors who are not related. It’s credit to Pine and Banks – as well as the writers – that their chemistry throughout is friendly, platonic and believably brother-sister like. Despite the cliche and predictable story, it’s the genuine and natural performances from the strong cast that pushes “People Like Us” to be more than the sum of its parts.