Lynn Shelton

On Lynn Shelton, Messy 30-Somethings, and the Beauty of Complexity

By Morgan Roberts

This is part personal, part film dissection. Do you remember the first time you saw a film from your favorite filmmaker? Do you remember the wonder? The awe?  The vibrating magic that seared through your soul as a creative paradigm shift happened to you? I remember mine.  

I was in my last year or so of undergrad. I was attending school at a tiny state college in a tiny town in the Midwest. I was at a precipice in my life. I was thinking about graduate school.  I was thinking about my future.  And I was so utterly terrified at the crossroads that laid before me. So, to ease my worries, I went to the one video store left in town. As I rummaged through the used DVDs, I stumbled upon a film I hadn’t really heard of. I liked the cast and so with pretty much no background knowledge of the film. And that is how I discovered “Your Sister’s Sister” (2011) and the exceptional filmmaker Lynn Shelton

Last year for Women’s History Month, I wrote about Shelton and the films she made. Shelton directed eight feature films and numerous episodes of television before she passed away unexpectedly in May of 2020.  Shelton is my favorite filmmaker.  She made mess look beautiful.  She showed vulnerability as a superpower. Above all else, Shelton just simply loved people. Her films are intimate portraits of seemingly ordinary people and exploring every extraordinary facet of them. Because, after all, being alive and being a person is truly an every day miracle. 

Rosemarie DeWitt in “Touchy Feely” | Film Distributed by Magnolia Pictures

I am at an interesting confluence of life. I am now into my 30s – granted, I am only 31 but it is less on the nose than 30.  I am starting to see lines appear on my face and hair on my head slowly fade from a rich brown to a silvery gray.  I own my car and vote and pay taxes. But my life is far from perfect or figured out.  My apartment sometimes looks like the trash bedroom from “Labyrinth.”  One minute, I am really proud of the work I do as a writer and in my day job, and the next, I feel completely directionless. 

And so in these oscillating highs and lows, I find myself turning back to Shelton’s work. Beholding the magic of it. In a cinematic scope that leaves messiness to your early 20s, Shelton saw the complexity of life. How self-assurance and insecurity can be buddies in your soul walking hand in hand. The catalyst for this introspection was a recent rewatch of her 2013 film, “Touchy Feely.” The storyline I continually connect with was that of Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt). Abby is a massage therapist who has spent her life connecting with people through touch. Then, one day, she is completely repulsed by touch. At first, she tries to get back to her normal. Yet, time and again, she cannot bring herself to touch another human. Then, at a precipice, she must determine if she submits to this new life, void of touch, or if she has to continue this uphill battle back to where she was. As she soldiers on, she determines a third, extremely scary option: instead of cyclically fighting and failing, maybe she has to create a new normal. Something, somewhere between submission and resilience. It is Shelton’s ability and DeWitt’s incredible performance that personifies the fear of starting anew. Especially when society tells us that, more so for women, new opportunities stop around the same time Leonardo DiCaprio ceases to find us attractive. 

It is a theme throughout most of Shelton’s work. That being in your 30s, your 40s, and heck, even your 50s, does not mean you miraculously reach enlightenment, having everything in life figured out. When one examines her film “Outside In” (2017), you are able to see that thread amongst the characters. Chris (Jay Duplass) is starting his life anew after being incarcerated for 20 years. His life halted at 18, and now, here he is, entering the world as a man without any of the tools to move through it. Meanwhile, his former teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who fought for Chris’s release, finds herself without companionship. Carol’s daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) equally finds herself isolated from others, feeling misunderstood by those around here. What Shelton does so masterfully with this film is not just find the common threads of uncertainly in her characters, but allows them to have fully unique experiences. Basic universality does not invalidate our wholly distinct lives. It just gives us an ability to empathizes with existences that don’t completely mirror our own. 

Outside In
Jay Duplass and Kaitlyn Dever in “Outside In” | Film Distributed by The Orchard

It is that strive for connection which link her films “My Effortless Brilliance” (2008) and “Laggies” (2014). Both are about the dissolution of longstanding relationships. With “My Effortless Brilliance” the film starts with best friends Dylan (Basil Harris) breaking up – in essence – with Eric (Sean Nelson). The film then explores their reconnection that seems more focused on providing closure than reconciliation. Shelton explores male friendships and the breakdown of those propinquities. We rarely see men have these relationships with each other. Which makes me interested in what brought Shelton back to male friendship in her following film, “Humpday” (2009) which equally looks at male intimacy – platonic or otherwise. But going back to break-ups, Shelton re-focused on someone drifting apart from her friends and family in “Laggies.” Her central character, Megan (Keira Knightley) has been in a long-term relationship since high school. She is still friends with everyone she knew as a child. Yet here, we see her reaching 30, still as directionless as her teenage self. And in exploring new possibilities, new relationships, Megan is confronted with the terrifying prospect of becoming untethered to her friends and partner. Shelton ensures there is no fault. Megan’s boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Weber), is caring. He doesn’t always understand her, but he is always there to support her. Her best friend Allison (Ellie Kemper) is quite uptight, yet she knows exactly what she would like in her life. These once incredible relationships have run their course. Shelton was never interested in shame or sides. She always focused on the humanity of it all. What made these characters human. Not just the elements that brought them together, but the areas in which they may have grown apart. 

Lynn Shelton on Set
Lynn Shelton on set in 2011 | IFC Films/Everett Collection

The beauty that always lived in Shelton’s work was her keen sense of wonder. She took such splendor in the human experience. All of it, the painful twinges of regret, the full-body elation of pure joy, the simple sighs of sorrow, and mixtures of trepidation and excitement at new possibilities. Whether it is her gaze on the women using wrestling to speak to each other on “GLOW” or in the messy geometry of “Your Sister’s Sister,” Shelton saw delight in layered complicated people. She saw flaws not as points of weakness but as opportunities for empathy and love. That was the fabric of her work. And, for me, the epitome of what makes cinema truly special. 

So, as I spend Women’s History Month revisiting Shelton’s films, I am reminded that kindness, grace, and empathy are not to solely be bestowed upon fictional characters, but on actual humans. The ones around me. And, importantly, myself. That is the power of cinema after all. It can be the reflections of ourselves and the reflections we wish to see. So infrequently do we see messy complicated women. Rarely do we see women of a certain age – as some call it – living a blemished and magical life. Shelton knew the importance of not just mirroring that with honestly, but without judgment. To look upon the layers of life with splendor. Shelton truly had a gift of capturing that existential ennui that comes with being a person and doing so with the utmost compassion. 


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