It isn’t necessary to note all the locations that must’ve been secured on a relatively humble budget to appreciate what writer/director Joey Kuhn achieves in “Those People,” but as someone who spends a great deal of time watching indie films shot in empty cafes and empty offices when they dare venture outside of domestic settings, Kuhn and crew’s care to shoot inside a crowded piano bar where revelers sing “Seasons of Love” deep into the evening, a packed synagogue at the height of Rosh Hashanah services, or a filled 3000-seat concert hall becomes something that cannot to be ignored. Contributing vitality and vigor to a film already full of it thanks to the evocative way cinematographer Leonardo D’Antoni shoots it, the authenticity allows “Those People” to segue so elegantly into the daily lives of its characters that when a story emerges, it hardly feels like an obligation.
Then again, “Those People” suggests a compelling tale right from its arresting opening salvo, slowly creeping in on two young men sitting bowlegged on the floor who hover over a turntable playing “The Pirates of Penzance,” singing “I Am a Modern Major General” at the top of their lungs. As it turns out, negotiating the twisty turns of phrase posed by Gilbert & Sullivan is far less complicated for Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and Sebastian (Jason Ralph), than what follows for the two twentysomethings who have known each other since grade school. They may have become fierce friends in the interim, but while Sebastian is fully formed — his cocksure persona shaped by his family’s money — Charlie isn’t, unable to become his own man because of his desire for something more than friendship with Sebastian.
It’s telling that the banner in the background of Charlie’s 23rd birthday party is left unfinished, a sign reading “Happy Birthday Cha…” hanging in the air much like Sebastian’s other gift to him, an offer to move in. While Charlie readily accepts, it isn’t even before the end of the evening that he has second thoughts, first when Sebastian inadvertently introduces him to Tim (Haaz Sleiman), a pianist at a local bar who catches his fancy, and then the two and their friends London (Meghann Fahy) and Ursula (Britt Lower) come home to a gaggle of paparazzi outside the gates of Sebastian’s apartment building, eager to embarrass the scion of a hedge fund crook after a night on the town. Suddenly, Sebastian begins to unravel at the seams at the exact moment that Charlie is ready to come into his own, their relationship turning completely upside down.
Despite Sebastian’s misfortune, “Those People” exhibits a casual comfort with wealth that’s unusual for these times, unapologetically indulging in the kind of tony attitudes and banter that make Whit Stillman’s films such a delight while never leaving reality behind. Often visually resplendent to match, there’s a burnished quality to the images (said to be the result of 1970s-era lenses during the film’s post-screening Q & A) that makes the film feel timeless, but relying on its content to feel immediate. Kuhn’s confidence allows “Those People” to elide didactic conversations about class, but using it as to create a subtext rich in every way for each of the relationships in the film – at first, that’s part of the attraction between Charlie and Tim, who is everything Sebastian is not, and once Sebastian submits himself to a self-imposed house arrest, it’s never dull watching which of his friends try to distant themselves.
The tug-of-war Charlie faces between Sebastian and Tim’s affections can be leaned on to drive the rest of the action, but much like the novels of Jane Austen, which would seem to be an influence, the love story isn’t what makes “Those People” so satisfying, but rather seeing the evolution of its characters to a place where they’re ready to give or receive it. Gordon, Ralph and Sleiman all handle the tricky material with grace, even on the rare occasion when the script stumbles into more melodramatic territory or Tim is required to say aloud what Charlie is thinking. Add to that a sterling supporting cast including Lower and Max Jenkins, who all but walks off with the movie as part of its most awkward scene when a potential threesome goes horribly awry, and you’ve got an incredibly lively drama, made all the more remarkable when you consider its writer/director submitted it as his thesis film to NYU. As it turns out, there may be a beautiful coming-of-age story at the center of “Those People,” but an even more invigorating one behind the scenes in witnessing a filmmaker with as distinctive a voice as Kuhn come right out the gate with something so accomplished.