By Morgan Roberts
There are a number of women who are trailblazers behind the camera, but none as remarkable as Lynn Shelton. Raised in Seattle, Shelton’s earlier career was in editing for work in the area as well as creating experimental short films. In 2003, Shelton saw Claire Denis at Seattle’s Northwest Forum. At the talk, Denis discussed her start in directing and how she directed her first film at 40. Shelton realized that there was still time for her to start directing films. Her feature film debut was with 2006’s “We Go Way Back.” Over the next 15 years, Shelton made eight feature films and directed episodes of more than a dozen television shows.
In May 2020, Shelton died unexpectedly from a blood disorder. Following her passing, there was an outpouring of stories about the path Shelton created for women and the love she had for her actors. In honor of her, we will take a dive into each of her films and cover her television work.
“We Go Way Back” (2006)
The film focuses on Kate (Amber Hubert) as she struggles as an actor and as a 23-year-old woman. She is cast in a play as the titular character Hedda Gabler and faces obstacles as a young woman in a male-dominated environment. Soon, her 13-year-old self (Maggie Brown) appears with all of her early teen judgment.
For a first feature, this film shows sophistication not typically seen in a debut. It is witty and interesting. Kate is a young woman having to exist as both a grown adult and as someone infantilized by society. It is interesting that Kate is playing Hedda Gabler in the film when the role of Hedda is usually played by a woman in her mid-to-late 30s. Here, we find Kate being asked to be a woman much older than herself. It is an interesting commentary on how we want women to be as young as possible while having the life experiences of women a decade or more older than them. What is also interesting is the way in which the play is being conducted. In this version of the play, the director is having Hedda speak in the text’s original Norwegian while everyone else speaks English. It is a smart way of depicting how women often find themselves being misunderstood by those around them. Shelton adds a lot of layers to the film. I find it interesting to see a woman in her 20s be judged by her teenage self, because even though we try, all of the people we once were are still part of the summation of our current selves. It is a bold first-film and one that showed Shelton’s assurance in her storytelling.
My Effortless Brilliance (2008)
Friends Dylan (Basil Harris) and Eric (Sean Nelson) have a falling out. We are never explicitly told why they are no longer friends, but it has something to do with Eric’s selfish behavior. Later, Eric tries to rekindle his friendship with Dylan, and while the two former friends are reminded of what connected them in the first place, the grievances that fractured their friendship soon come to the surface.
This film is the first time Shelton asks the question, “Are straight men okay?” She also doesn’t leave her audience hanging. The answer is very much, “no.” What is interesting is that we never learn explicitly what led to the end of the friendship. It feels very much like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” We don’t know the specifics but we do know the feeling. We know what it is like to feel slighted by someone who you considered a friend. And what’s even sadder about the film is Eric. Eric really thought that he and Dylan were best friends. He thought they were close. But as he examines this former friendship, you see Eric held the relationship in higher esteem than Dylan. I love what Shelton does with this film. As a female filmmaker, she subverts the traditional gaze on male relationships. We don’t always see male relationships in this nuanced manner. We don’t get to see their emotional struggles alone much less with each other. This won’t be the only time Shelton explores this.
“I want to see diversity in storytelling sources because we live in a very diverse society and the stories are for the whole society. That’s really important. For me, as a female filmmaker, when I was out on the festival circuit in 2006 I felt like such a freaking anomaly—an oddity.“Lynn Shelton from an Interview with Women and Hollywood
Two friends, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) reconnect after 10 years. On a mutual dare, the pair decide that they are going to make a pornographic film as an “art project” and submit it to the HUMP! film festival. It is complicated because Ben struggles to tell his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) the specific details of the film. The film crescendos to the pair having to decide if they will really go forward with their dare.
Once again, the answer to “Are straight men okay?” is no. While interesting and thought-provoking for the late-aughts, not everything about this film has aged well. It has a very stringent view on sexuality, but it does make sense as the 2000s were defined by a very structured understanding of sexuality rather than it being fluid. At the time, Shelton certainly did not have the language for the examination of sexuality as a spectrum. What is kind of funny about the film is that the HUMP! film festival is a real thing. It is amateur pornographic film festival in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. As a Seattle-native, it is those kinds of touches that Shelton added to her films that made everything feel well-lived in even with a 94 minute runtime. Like her previous films, “Humpday” was not explicitly scripted. The script was more of an outline with the actors creating dialogue. That is what makes the third act even more interesting, knowing that Duplass and Leonard were given a lot of room to create that scene.
Your Sister’s Sister (2011)
Jack (Mark Duplass) is reeling from the death of his brother. His friend Iris (Emily Blunt) offers up her family’s cabin for Jack to get away and clear his head. Jack agrees but soon learns that he’s not alone. Iris’s older half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) happens to be hiding out at the cabin as well. Jack and Hannah, after a night of conversation and drinking, find themselves in bed…together. Things get more awkward when Iris is revealed to harbor a crush on Jack. Secrets are soon learned and not ones you may expect.
“Your Sister’s Sister” was my first Lynn Shelton film. I have a hunch I blind-purchased the DVD while at a video store in college. I was probably most interested in seeing Blunt and DeWitt together having been fans of both actresses. It is hard to talk about this film in an analytical way when Shelton’s work is so personal. After Shelton’s passing Blunt talked about a scene where the three characters are having dinner; in the scene, DeWitt’s character has to share an embarrassing story about Blunt’s character. Shelton spoke to DeWitt who then shared a very embarrassing and true story about her own sister that made Blunt turn bright red. This film is truly magical as it is a simple story, full of nuanced and thoughtful performances. Shelton really shined as a filmmaker with “Your Sister’s Sister” as this movie truly makes filmmaking possible for anyone. As an introductory piece to Shelton, it was a jaw-droppingly beautiful piece to behold.
Touchy Feely (2013)
After her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) asks her to move in with him, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), a massage therapist, develops a complete aversion to touch. Meanwhile, her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a struggling dentist, miraculously acquires the magical touch, healing his patients. The pair go on parallel journeys as they try to grapple with their newfound realities, and what their bodies might be saying to them.
This was Shelton’s first film with a host of recognizable actors. She reteamed with the immaculate DeWitt who gives such a heartfelt performance in this film. Shelton also had Elliot Page, Allison Janney, and Ron Livingston featured in the film as well. The film is a combination of two projects which is why it can feel like there is a lot going on. However, at the core, you have two very interesting ideas. Pais’s character is a dentist, and dentists are not the most liked doctors out there. Then, he develops this healing touch, making people flock to him. Watching this character navigate this newfound attention is intriguing especially because his character is more reserved. As stated before, DeWitt gives a beautiful performance as a woman whose life is defined by touch becomes completely repulsed by it. This is some of DeWitt’s best work – which is saying something. Shelton and DeWitt really hit a stride together here, creating this nuanced performance and story arc for this character. Even amongst the many storylines, DeWitt is never lost in the mix and truly stands out.
Megan (Keira Knightley) is aimlessly living a commitment phobic life. She won’t commit to a profession despite having a degree. She won’t fully commit to her longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber). After a chance meeting with teenager Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), Megan crashes at the teen’s house, much to the chagrin to Annika’s lawyer father, Craig (Sam Rockwell).
“Laggies” was Shelton’s only fully scripted film and was written by Andrea Seigel. However, the film gets the Shelton treatment with how lived in each of these performances are. Shelton originally went to school to become an actor and her appreciation for the craft comes across in both the meticulous attention to detail and space for her actors to do their thing. This was also a great opportunity for Knightley to do something not in a corset. Her character is very much adrift, which I feel were some of Shelton’s favorite people. Moretz does great work playing opposite Knightley as a somewhat precocious teen. She demonstrates a maturity in her performance while balancing Annika’s struggles with not viewing everything in a black-and-white manner. The scene stealer in this film is Kaitlyn Dever who plays one of Annika’s friends. Dever is incredible, giving some comedic relief when we need it most. Shelton assembled a great cast for this film. Shelton always had an eye for giving actors roles they don’t typically get. I mean, how often does Rockwell get to be a hot dad in a movie? You also get the sense of how much fun Shelton was having with this piece. It felt like a lighter version of “We Go Way Back” without losing the essence that makes these two films companion pieces to each other.
Outside In (2017)
At 38, Chris (Jay Duplass) is released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. His release is thanks to the tireless advocacy of his former teacher Carol (Edie Falco). Carol, who is in a loveless marriage, struggles to refind purpose after Chris’s release. She also struggles to connect with her daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever). Meanwhile, Chris is trying to act on his feelings for Carol while also befriending Hildy.
This film is probably Shelton’s most serious work. Jay Duplass is exceptionally charming which does help ease some of the tension. His work in this film is so delicate because most of the years where someone would learn how to be an adult were spent behind bars. And while this character could be jaded and bitter, he comes out of it as a curious person. Hildy and Chris bond because the outside world experience is at the same level; she has to teach him about cell phones and certain technology which he finds fascinating. He also learns more about the complexity of Carol, whom he idolizes. Duplass is truly extraordinary. Falco also gives an incredible performance – but you could ask her to read the phone book and she would make it captivating. What Falco does with her character is demonstrate how even an outwardly simple person can do extraordinary things. Once again, Dever is dynamite in this film, portraying a young woman feeling completely misunderstood by those around her while also learning she has a lot more living to do. What Shelton does best is show people at a crossroads. But those crossroads are never just for teenagers or a young 20-something. Shelton always highlighted in her work that struggle and strife and change can happen at any age. In this film, we have a man in his 40s learning to live, a teenage girl finding her voice, and a woman in her 50s redefining her purpose.
Sword of Trust (2019)
Mel (Marc Maron) owns a pawn shop with the help of Nathaniel (Jon Bass). Cynthia (Jillian Bell) comes back into town with her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) after the death of her grandfather. The story intertwines when Cynthia and Mary go to Mel’s pawn shop to sell the only thing bequeathed to Cynthia which is a sword that her grandfather alleged is proof the South won the Civil War. Mel soon learns that there are people into Southern revisionism and agrees to help sell the sword. The quartet soon find themselves on a journey they never could have envisioned.
This is Shelton’s final feature film. I saw this film in 2019, in a small independent theater for my birthday. I remember leaving the film buzzing with the same feeling I had after watching “Your Sister’s Sister.” What makes this film so special are the characters. Maron gives a particularly thoughtful and vulnerable performance. He portrays a man who struggled in his past, and must learn that forgiveness isn’t a singular act but an everyday decision you have to make. “Sword of Trust,” I believe, is Shelton’s funniest film. It is very witty, very smart. And it makes sense. Maron, Watkins, Bell, and Bass all play beautifully off each other. The banter between Maron and Watkins is spectacular. They are both at odds with one another and exactly the same. And there’s a moment where Bell gives a line delivery of “Surprise gun!” that will have you laughing aloud. Shelton was really gearing up for a lovely shift in her career. What I have always admired about Shelton is that she tells stories about people of all different ages and backgrounds. She really saw something special in Maron’s abilities and I think their work together here was simply sublime. Shelton always had a way of bringing out sides of actors you didn’t always get to see.
“I have always been interested in character relationships that feel incongruent on paper — bonds or dynamics that from the outside may appear strange or improbable. But through these odd pairings, there is humanity and transformation. It’s people who grapple with their sense of identity as one loses the ability to touch and the other gains an ability to heal. I love the idea of two souls connecting across the barriers of whatever social norms might be standing in their way.”Lynn Shelton from an interview with Filmmaker Magazine
Shelton and Television
If you think of your favorite episodes of some of your favorite shows, there is a high likelihood that Shelton was the director. Shelton established herself as a well-respected television director. Television has been giving female directors opportunities the world of movie-making hasn’t; additionally, working on these shows allowed her to go back to Seattle and make beautiful, small films.
Following her passing, American Cinematheque had a roundtable with actors who worked with Shelton. Jon Hamm talked about her boundless love of making art and the infectious joy she brought to the set of “Mad Men.” Eddie Huang remembers speaking to Shelton as she was getting ready to direct the pilot episode of “Fresh Off the Boat” about the important pieces Huang wanted Shelton to capture. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington discussed the book Shelton made for her vision of “Little Fires Anywhere.” Gillian Jacobs talked about the phone call she had with Shelton about a sex scene that appeared in the pilot of “Love,” and the attention to safety Shelton had.
Shelton really made a mark on television and it’s evident in the way her special touch was woven into every episode she directed. I particularly loved the episodes of “GLOW” she directed. I think she always sought to capture the vulnerabilities and magic of every character. The season 3 episode, “Keep Ridin’” showcased her ability to balance tonal shifts and character arcs with ease. The episode has one of my favorite opening shots with Ruth (Alison Brie) taking off her make-up as a montage of days and weeks fly behind in the show’s dressing room. It highlights the monotony of Vegas shows and visually gives you the understanding that Ruth is feeling stuck. As a former actor, Shelton also knew how to make quieter moments impactful, such as when Ruth is helping Sheila (Gayle Rankin) with a monologue for an upcoming event. It is a quiet moment that speaks volumes, and Shelton really knew how to make those types of scenes come to life.
Shelton was not just a trailblazing filmmaker. Many remember Shelton as a loving mother. Witherspoon even commented that Shelton continually expressed how much she loved being a mom. Her early work examined some of the fears of being a parent, but at the end of the day, no matter the film or television episode, Shelton’s proudest work was being a mom.
“Flaws make us human…”
Shelton was really a people person. She always had faith in others. Found the beauty in others. Believed in others. Shelton once said, “Flaws make us all human, and you’re rooting for characters because of those flaws. It’s ageless if you’re interested in relationships and the way people can or can’t relate to each other.” Shelton wasn’t interested in the idea of loving people in spite of their flaws. Shelton was so focused on finding the beauty in loving people because of those flaws. She saw mess and complexity to be the more miraculously human thing. Her love for people always shined through. And it was that attention and love that made her work so wonderful. Not only did she make filmmaking seem possible for anyone to do, she also made her audiences feel like their mess, their flaws, their vulnerabilities aren’t so bad afterall.
It felt like fate finding Lynn Shelton’s work. I am still mesmerized by her ability to balance space for actors while having a precise vision. When I think about Shelton, I think about that love she had for people. I think about her technical abilities as a filmmaker; the way she would build a world so lived in, you didn’t need someone to explain what was happening. She made ordinary life feel extraordinary. Because, at the end of the day, Lynn Shelton herself was pretty extraordinary.