Lynn Shelton’s films made you laugh in the moment, think for days, remember forever

I can’t believe I’m writing this piece. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Lynn Shelton, urging people to support her work and help her succeed as a filmmaker. I went on and on about how wonderful I thought she was. On May 16, she died from a blood disorder at the age of 54. She had so much ahead of her. She was a bisexual woman who made it as a beloved and successful film director. Her characters were unique and intriguing, her dialogue was authentic and witty, and her stories left audiences with new perspectives to ponder. I was looking forward to continuing to support her as she took on new projects and developed her craft even further, but I guess now all I can do is celebrate what she did. Luckily, there’s a lot to celebrate.

Devastated as I am to have to write this article right now, it feels relevant to the current moment. This is a time of losing people too soon and completely unexpectedly, and all we can do is honor those we’ve lost. To honor Lynn Shelton, I watched (almost) every one of her films, and will break down what’s great about each one and explain what makes them, now more than ever, really worth watching. 

My Effortless Brilliance (2008)

My Effortless Brilliance is about two old friends attempting to reconnect. This was the first film Shelton directed, and by the look and feel of it, it’s recognizable that she was making the best she could of limited resources. My Effortless Brilliance looks like it was shot on a handheld camcorder from decades ago, and given what was probably a very low budget for the film, it might’ve been. This makes the film feel almost like a home video, as if someone decided to record their friends in casual conversation.

This is not a critique of the lack of expensive technology involved; in fact, compared to the high-budget television episodes and feature films Shelton later created, the simplicity and do-it-yourself feel of My Effortless Brilliance is actually really charming.

Shelton had her directorial style developed from the get-go. My Effortless Brilliance feels like a home movie for more reasons than the cinematography; the dialogue and the characters’ chemistry are so authentic that it seems impossible that it was ever scripted, impossible that these characters had ever been created and aren’t just real people.

In an interview with Slate Magazine, Shelton revealed her directorial style: “95 percent of what I do as a director is casting and getting people who can bear the load of what you’re asking them to do and creating this emotionally safe environment. With Humpday, it was a 10-page outline with no dialogue written at all.” So, there’s our answer. Moments in Shelton’s films feel so real because, in a sense, they are. In these films, words come out in real-time like they do in real life, and reactions are legitimate. The fact that Shelton doesn’t rely on writing to create character, and instead brings characters and relationships out of her actors, is incredible, and such a testament to her skill and prestige as a director. 

Humpday (2009)

This is the film that got Lynn Shelton’s name out there, and I can see why. Humpday is the hilarious story of two straight men who want to make a porn film together as an experimental piece of art. It stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, who have incredible chemistry (or lack thereof, because they’re two straight men) as each other’s foils.

The situation the two men create for themselves is, as you can imagine, so funny, and the genuine will-they-won’t-they of it all keeps the story riveting. But, surprising as it sounds, Humpday is more than a raunchy comedy about two guys making a porno. It’s a genuine commentary on the nature of intimacy, sexuality, art and experimentation, and it will leave you thinking for hours and even days afterward. 

Lynn Shelton in SWORD OF TRUST

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

I think Your Sister’s Sister is the best showcase of Shelton’s unique directorial style. The film is about Jack (Mark Duplass), who goes on a cabin retreat to clear his head and is unexpectedly joined by his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) and her sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), the former of which he’s in love with, and the latter of which he sleeps with on the first night.

After reading a plot synopsis like that one, I was ready for a comedy about two women vying for a man. I was wrong. There is so, so, so much more to this story than that. In fact, the relationship between Emily Blunt’s character and Rosemarie Dewitt’s is the most nuanced, layered, and authentic portrayal of sisterhood that I’ve ever seen on film, and Mark Duplass acts as a compliment to them, rather than a force driving them apart. 

To me, the impressive complexity of these characters and their relationships demonstrates a larger pattern in Lynn Shelton’s directing: she never phoned it in. When FF2’s Editor-in-Chief, Jan Huttner, interviewed Shelton about Your Sister’s Sister , they discussed the genre of the film and Huttner asked, “Does it matter anymore what we label stuff? How would you feel if somebody called Your Sister’s Sister a romantic comedy (‘RomCom’)…?”, to which Shelton replied “I’d say they were wrong. I don’t think it’s a RomCom. If you have to pigeonhole it into a genre, then ‘Dramatic Comedy’ seems the most accurate to me. That has a little more dignity than ‘Dramedy.; But really, to me the comedy and the drama go hand-in-hand. When we were on set, it was really essential that none of us—not the actors or myself either—think that we’re in ‘a comedy,’ because that’s when I find (especially with improvisation) you start reaching for jokes. You start sort of ‘soft-shoeing,’ and trying to entertain people, and I don’t want that. I want us to just always be playing to the truth of the scene and I really have no idea how many laughs there are going to be. We’re playing it so straight that it’s really hard to tell the forest for the trees. It was the same thing with Humpday. I never really knew exactly how funny it would be.”

So Shelton was never interested in creating films that fit into a safely marketable box, in “‘soft-shoeing,’ and trying to entertain people”. She didn’t create her films to elicit a certain reaction. Instead, she was interested in creating something real. In real life, situations don’t have neat and tidy endings. There aren’t good guys and bad guys, and people don’t fit into tropes. So Lynn Shelton refused to include any of those things in her films because she wasn’t interested in making them more palatable for people expecting a Hollywood feature. 

Touchy Feely (2013)

Touchy Feely is great for the same reasons that the others are. The characters are interesting, it’s funny, and the plot is truly thought-provoking. Allison Janney plays a Reiki Master who helps a sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and brother (Josh Pais) appreciate the healing gift of touch. What’s uniquely well-done in this one, however, are the parallel storylines between characters. The journeys that the individual characters undergo complement and augment each other in a way that touched me so deeply that I can’t quite put it into words. Also, the dentist in this film may be my favorite character that Shelton ever created. 

Laggies (2014)

Laggies is probably Shelton’s most classic “rom-com” (though, as previously discussed, she was—rightfully—opposed to categorizing her films in such a way). Laggies tells the story of Megan (Keira Knightley), who runs away from a marriage proposal and the onset of her adult life and ends up befriending a teenage girl, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and hiding out in her house where she lives with her dad (Sam Rockwell). It’s a coming of age story for both Megan and Annika. This film is sweet, optimistic, and endlessly charming. It’s the way to go if you want to watch a Shelton film that’s undeniably feel-good. 

Outside In (2017)

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Laggies is Outside In. This was Shelton’s first true drama, and given the dark undertones of many of her other films, it’s not surprising that she did it really well. Outside In also marked the end of Shelton’s hiatus from filmmaking in which she directed episodes for many well-known television series, so the experience and professionalism that she gained in that time is evident in the technique of the film. 

The story is about Chris (Jay Duplass), a mid-thirties man just released from a prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, attempting to reintegrate himself into the world and navigating his complex relationship with his old high-school teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who supported him as he served his time and advocated for his early release. Shelton’s sensitive direction combined with the masterful performances of Duplass and Falco makes for devastating emotion. Don’t let that scare you away, though. Like all of her films, Outside In is also full of Shelton’s signature wit and charm which keeps things light. 

Sword of Trust (2019)

This is the most recent and the last of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful films. Unlike Outside In, Shelton leans into comedy again with this one. It’s about a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who have just inherited a sword that allegedly proves that the south won the civil war. They bring it to a pawn shop where they meet Mel (Marc Maron) and Nathaniel (Jon Bass), and the four of them embark on a wild journey to sell the sword to confederate flag-bearing southerners who will pay the big bucks for it. Lynn Shelton herself played a small role as Mel’s lover. Mel is played by Marc Maron, who she was dating in real life. It’s lovely to see her and her relationship with Maron preserved on the screen. To me, Sword of Trust is the best example of Shelton’s ability to layer profound, thought-provoking themes underneath witty dialogue and a general air of comedy. As I watched the film, I’d find my entertained chuckles quickly silenced by the profound implications of the moment. I think that’s my favorite thing about Lynn Shelton: though for the most part her films seem lighthearted and comedic, they are always more. They make you laugh in the moment but then leave you thinking for days. 

Sword of Trust is a meditation on the importance of truth in a world full of fiction, making it a fitting conclusion to the career of a woman with a unique ability to bring truth to her own stories. 

Though Lynn Shelton had so much more ahead of her, she created wonderful and important art in her lifetime. Her cinematic voice and vision will be truly missed. But I believe that her heart and soul is in these films, so, in a way, watching them keeps her here with us. 

© Julia Lasker (5/29/20) FF2 Media

SWORD OF TRUST

Featured image: Lynn Shelton (Credit: STUART ISETT, Los Angeles Times)

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