People Like Us contains elements I see rarely in films. Its realistic portrayals, its deep storylines, its depiction of family, and how imperfect it can be. Families are complicated, but the film takes on the task of unraveling the complications and seeing it through until light breaks the darkness. It’s a film that doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves.
Sometimes you have to leave home, or even escape it before you find it again and it gives you everything you need. That’s the case for Sam (Chris Pine), one of the film’s protagonists. For Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), another protagonist, Sam’s appearance in her life gives her the chance to heal old wounds and to better her life.
Families are messy; individuals are imperfect. That’s all okay. What matters is trying your best and allowing everything else to fall into place. That’s one of the messages I picked up from the film, and it’s one of the reasons why I love it so much.
A Rare Script
I’ve been a writer all my life. In that time, I’ve heard plenty of advice. One such piece of advice being write what you know. I find that some of the best stories, and films, come from someone’s true story. This is the case for People Like Us.
The film’s story comes from director, writer, and producer, Alex Kurtzman. As this article from NBC Chicago notes, the “story specifics are wildly different, but the emotional core came from his (Kurtzman’s) life.”
The article delves further, asking Kurtzman himself how he decided to open himself up to the point of sharing his story with the world. As he puts it, he met his half-sister when he was 30, and “felt an indescribably strong need to write about it in some form.” He adds that he wanted to write a story that was messy because it was a messy situation that the characters were in. He wrote his story, and he wrote it well; it’s forever a treasure in my book.
It’s true; the characters were all dealing with one big mess. The inciting event is the death of Jerry Harper, a man who was a legend in the LA music industry, but failed as a father to Sam and Frankie, albeit in different ways.
The script is rare because it’s about a brother and a sister. It’s about a broken family finding each other and healing one another. It’s about discovering family skeletons, unearthing the secrets and navigating a way through old wounds and family dysfunction to find peace or at least common ground.
Sam and Frankie have to open old wounds in order to embark on a new beginning and this time heal their scars with something a little stronger than simply burying their emotions and blocking out those painful memories. Their story is more than worth watching; perhaps even powerful enough to heal certain wounds audiences carry.
Sam has been ignored by his father his entire life. He ran the first chance he got, and he’s been doing so ever since. He was obviously closer to his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), but considering their own rocky relationship, it isn’t saying much. Sam never got the recognition he needed from his father, and he never knew why. It took his father dying for Sam to learn the truth, about a lot of things, and while that was a tragic unveiling, it was also a bright beginning.
Sam is understandably hurt when he discovers from his father’s lawyer that he’s inherited nothing, but that his late father expects him to locate someone named Josh Davis (Michael Hall D’Addario) and hand over 150,000 in cash, with the instructions “take care of them.” Despite his misgivings, Sam goes to the address on the note and just so happens to spot Josh and Frankie returning to their home, with Frankie yelling at her son for blowing up his school’s swimming pool.
Sam initially suspects Frankie to be Jerry’s lover but is shocked to discover she is his daughter, making her Sam’s half-sister. I couldn’t imagine having a sibling appear out of nowhere, especially after recently losing a parent. It’d be a lot to digest, but I think it would turn out to be pretty cool—unless, God forbid, that sibling is a convicted murderer or something.
Sam was placed in a tough position from the beginning. His father didn’t make it easy for him, first by giving him no warning of Frankie’s existence, and again by instructing Sam to take on the task of handing over the money and getting nothing in return—or at least, seemingly nothing. Sam didn’t know how to tell Frankie who he really was; no one gives you a handbook on how to deal with such a situation, so there was bound to be mistakes made and misunderstandings galore.
Sam is somewhat fascinated by his sister, finding that they share more in common than he initially thought, despite being raised in completely different households. It just goes to show that even with different backgrounds, families still share things in common, whether it’s a love for something, or even something deeper like insecurities and traumas.
The longer he goes on getting to know Frankie, though, the deeper the hole he’s digging for himself. Frankie is starting to really trust Sam, and so is her son, Josh, who needs a father figure and has come to see Sam like one. Plus, it’s hinted at that Frankie may be developing feelings for Sam, who has begun spending a significant amount of time with her and Josh, and who has been kinder to her than anyone has been in a while. It’s not strongly implied, and it’s not at all like the Marty and Lorraine McFly situation in Back to the Future—if that had happened in this movie, it just wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is.
Meanwhile, Frankie has struggles of her own. She finds out about her father’s death from her sponsor (she’s a recovering alcoholic that attends AA meetings), who read about it in the newspaper. She’s hurt that she isn’t mentioned; the paper only names Jerry’s wife Lillian and their son Sam as the family he’s survived by. She discusses this at the AA meeting she attends immediately afterwards, and this is how Sam finds out who she is, as he’s followed her there.
Frankie gradually opens up to Sam, telling him about her experiences with her father. Sam, understandably flabbergasted as to why and how he never knew of Frankie’s existence, asks her questions throughout the film, wanting to know more about her and her background. Sometimes he can be too pushy, and Frankie does call him on it, albeit lightheartedly. However, Frankie tells Sam everything anyway—she obviously trusts him, and feels some kind of connection with him, given her comfort level around him. She talks about her memories with her dad, including the last time she saw him years before, his car driving away the last image she ever had of him.
Frankie’s been hurt and has led a difficult life; nothing has ever come easy for her. As Sam’s girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) notes at one point, Sam ran away from their father, but Frankie never had a choice. She was just shut out and couldn’t do anything about it—unlike Sam.
Frankie gets personal, telling Sam that she never asked what was wrong with her father, but what was wrong with her. What was wrong with her that her father didn’t want her? Why did he just leave her? These questions she never had the answers to, so she blamed herself. She did what she could to get him to notice her, but it wasn’t enough.
Frankie followed a destructive path, partying and drinking until she got pregnant with her son, which saved her life, as she stated in the film. She tells Sam all this and more as they share tacos, and then hang out at a laundromat together. She and Sam grow to be good friends—dare I say, the best of friends. They can be real with one another, and Sam understands her pain. He couldn’t get their father to notice him, either. His strained relationship with Jerry was why he had a minimal reaction to his death, simply looking lost and asking Hannah what was for dinner when he heard the news. It’s part of why Sam’s grief is so complicated, and why, through Frankie, he tries to get to know his father a little more.
Lillian, Sam’s mother, was the cause of Jerry leaving his other family for her and for Sam. She forced him to choose. Jerry did choose; that part is on him, but Lillian instigated the change.
Lillian did it because she wanted to protect Sam, specifically from the pain of loving someone and then finding out you’re not enough, as she puts it. People are not perfect. Being a parent is both the greatest gift and the hardest job in the world. She did what she thought was right for her child; unfortunately for her, and for Sam, her plan backfired.
Jerry didn’t pay attention to Sam; Sam was a reminder of the child he’d abandoned, and he couldn’t handle the pain of that. Yet, instead of doing something about it, Jerry suffered in silence, waiting until he died to unite Sam and Frankie, without his wife’s knowledge. Lillian doesn’t find out about the money Jerry left for Frankie and Josh, or that Jerry wished for Sam to find them until Sam tells her himself.
Sam, in turn, later discovers that Lillian was aware of Frankie’s existence and that she forced Jerry to choose. That wasn’t easy for Sam to process, but he did come to see his mother’s side, even if he didn’t agree with it. Despite this, Sam is there for her, helping her with the loss of her husband and through her recovery from a minor surgery.
Even after Lillian has told him why she made Jerry choose, Sam admits he may not necessarily agree with her, but that he loves her. Even more touching, they relate, as they agree they could both start trying to be “people.” It’s a touching mother-son moment, forgiving past transgressions on both ends, and agreeing to do better, be better, for each other, for others, and of course, for themselves. People are not perfect, but they can always try to improve, and learning from mistakes is one of the best methods of changing and moving forward. That, and acknowledging that you’re trying, and that’s what counts.
Appearing When They Need You Most
“They” being family in this case.
It’s not just Frankie that needs Sam; it’s her son, Josh, as well. Josh is being raised by a single mother and will likely never know who his father is. Josh needs a male figure in his life and his mother hasn’t exactly had a steady relationship in his lifetime, or even before that. Frankie has issues, but she loves her son more than anything in the world. Everything she does, she does for him.
The right people will come into your life when you need them the most. And if they really care, if they’re real, they will stay. That’s how you know you can trust them.
Sam is that right person for Frankie and Josh and vice versa. Sam has long avoided his family, but when he returns home to LA upon his father’s death, he’s forced to confront it. I think he surprised himself by suddenly spending so much time with his sister and nephew, but he genuinely enjoyed their company. Perhaps at first they were partially a distraction for him from his work and legal troubles, but it became something more. It was about having a family again, being around them and having something of a normal family life. Spending time with them also allows Sam to become a better person, and by extension, repair his relationship with his girlfriend, Hannah.
Meanwhile, Josh gradually bonds with Sam, beginning with their first meeting in which Sam hands Josh some music albums he should listen to, and in which order. The two become friends, and Josh looks up to him. Sam has a moment in which he’s about to return to New York and he takes out his frustrations on Josh. As a result, Josh is hurt and gets into a fight at school, but it brings Sam back, as he shows up to the school to help Frankie and Josh. He and Josh get the chance to repair their relationship, just before Sam’s relationship with his sister crumbles to pieces. However, it’s Josh that finds Sam after Frankie has cut contact with her brother; Josh helps bring his mother and uncle back together.
Josh relies on Sam’s guidance wholeheartedly. He loves his mom, both appreciating her and looking out for her, but sometimes, he needs his time with the guys, and Sam gives him guidance that Frankie cannot.
My personal favorite Sam and Josh moment is when Sam shares with his nephew “The Six Rules”, which Jerry had told Sam years before.
1. If you like something because you think other people are gonna like it, it’s a sure bet no one will.
2. Most doors in the world are closed, so if you find one that you want to get into, you damn well better have an interesting knock.
3. Everything that you think is important, isn’t. And everything that you think is unimportant, is.
4. Don’t shit where you eat.
5. Lean into it.
6. Never sleep with someone who has more problems than you.
Sam explains some of these to Josh with a little more detail, such as “lean into it” essentially translates to “the outcome doesn’t matter; what matters is that you’re there for it…good or bad.” This moment is special because it’s Sam imparting wisdom to Josh, and because that wisdom comes from Jerry, Josh’s grandfather. Even though Josh never knew his grandfather, he at least has something he can remember him by.
The Best Ending Ever
By the ending, things are looking pretty hopeless. Sam has finally confessed to Frankie who he really is, and she had something of a meltdown as she threw him out of her apartment. It’s the kind of moment you could see coming, but what you don’t see coming, is the perfection of the ending.
Frankie can’t seem to forgive Sam or to allow him back into her life. She previously expressed her hatred for her father’s other family, because in the end, they got him and she didn’t. Her pain runs deep and traumatic; she can’t see past it and understand things from Sam’s perspective, in which he had no idea and had nothing to do with what happened to her. He did consider for one moment taking the money for himself, but he couldn’t do it—he did the right thing and gave it to its intended recipients, Frankie and Josh. Sam did his best to fulfill his father’s final wish and “take care of them.”
However, when Sam’s waiting on their doorstep for them after Josh has let him know where they moved to, Frankie initially tries to avoid him—until Josh changes her mind. Sam has something important to show to her—and it turns out to be a precious gift. A gift Sam got from his mother, who mentioned that it was meant for him. Actions do speak louder than words; it’s Lillian trying to be better, and it’s a beautiful gesture.
Sam convinces Frankie to watch the video, expressing the important sentiment that they are family, and families make mistakes. He admits he is the “King of Mistakes”, and pleads with her to forgive him, adding “let me be your brother”, and that he wants her to be his sister. The two share a touching moment, indicating their relationship is on the mend, and Frankie confesses that she thinks she waited her whole life for their father to come back to her….and then he sent Sam. That’s when Sam shows her Jerry’s note, and then the video he took of them as children.
The video Jerry took shows Sam playing in the park when he was a child, and soon, a blonde-haired little girl joins Sam and plays with him. It’s Sam and Frankie, playing together as children. Frankie’s mother continued taking her to the park each Sunday even after Jerry had left, and Jerry had begun taking Sam to the park on Sundays as well. In that moment, they realize how much their father really did love them and that he did want them to know each other and be a family. It unites their past to their present, repairing their relationship, and ensuring a happy future where they have one another in their lives to depend on. Sam has already decided to return to LA for good, to be near his mother, and of course, Frankie and Josh.
As the two watch the home movie, it’s clear how they feel. It’s happiness, it’s relief, it’s healing and so much more. I don’t know what Sam would have done without that video—I like to think he’d have found another way back into Frankie’s and Josh’s lives—but I believe that eventually, Frankie would have forgiven him anyway for his deception.
The video is practically a message from their father, both a statement of how much he loves his children and an apology for not being a better father to them. As Sam put it, he and Frankie “are the only two people on this planet that know what it was like to be his kid.” They have one another to commiserate with, sure, but in the moments they watch the video, it’s a celebration of him. They each grieved their father in their own ways, but in this instance, they were united.
In the end, though Jerry didn’t leave Sam any money, he gave him what he needed: his sister and his nephew. In turn, Jerry sent Sam to retrieve Frankie and Josh and bring them back into the family. It was his last act, and his last wish, and in a way, it kind of makes up for the wrong he’d done in his lifetime. Or at least, provided his two kids with a blissfully happy memory.
It just goes to show that even from the biggest messes, the most beautiful things can be created.