Director Lynn Shelton finds humor, humanity in vast body of work

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Lynn Shelton is an accomplished writer and director who has been gracing us with wonderful films since 2008. She is also powerful in the television scene, having directed episodes for many well-known TV series including New Girl, The Mindy Project, Shameless and The Good Place. She has received recognition for her work, including the John Cassavetes Award for her film Humpday at the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Screenplay for her newest film Sword of Trust at the Gijon International Film Festival. However, given the quality and quantity of her projects, the fact that her name is not more well-known is surprising. I’d like to think there’s a reason for this besides her gender, but I’m hard pressed to find any other reason for the constant underrecognition of her excellent work. Whatever the reason, I will be overjoyed if I can help bring more viewership to this highly-deserving individual. 

Shelton began her career making independent comedy films: her first two were We Go Way Back in 2006 and My Effortless Brilliance in 2008. Then she made Humpday in 2009, which received high praise at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. I watched Humpday in my research for this article, and I can attest that it’s pretty brilliant. It’s hilarious, of course, but also quite poignant as it explores some really interesting complexities and nuances of human interaction. 

 Shelton then made Your Sister’s Sister, which, like Humpday, did much better with the critics than her first films. FF2’s Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner interviewed Shelton for Your Sister’s Sister. In the interview, they discuss the sense of self and how it shifts in relation to others – a central theme in several of Shelton’s films. Shelton says, “Everybody has had that experience of going home for Thanksgiving and starting to act 10 years old again because they’re in the same situation with their parents and their siblings. So you get back into this rut again of who you were when you were first becoming a grownup. It’s not until you get out that you can break out of those bonds, but we still get trapped by them when we return. Behavior patterns get repeated, and that was actually part of the backstory between these two sisters (Iris and Hannah). We had a very elaborate narrative written about what had happened between them in the past involving similar kinds of betrayals.” This quote, in my opinion, demonstrates her sophisticated worldview and nuanced understanding of humans that shines through in her work. In the interview, they also discuss how Your Sister’s Sister is genre-bending; not quite a comedy but not quite a drama, either. This signals the beginning of Shelton’s shift to more serious subject matter in her films, which I believe indicates artistic maturation. 

After Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton made Laggies, an adorable romantic comedy starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. I also watched Laggies, and once again, thoroughly enjoyed it for its humor and humanity. 

After Laggies, Shelton took a hiatus from filmmaking and began directing episodes from the well-known TV series listed above. This period of time proved to be beneficial for her as a director. In a 2019 interview, she told Vanity Fair that “There was a three or four-year gap between Laggies and Outside In, and I was on set, constantly doing television. And it really showed. When I showed up on the set of Outside In, it was like, Oh, I’m a completely different filmmaker because of all the time I’ve logged.” 

When Shelton made her return to filmmaking in 2018 with her first true drama Outside In, (read her interview with FF2’s Lesley Coffin) the film received a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. I watched Outside In, too, and had to agree with the RT critics: the characters are beautifully crafted and the story arch is perfect. It’s as if, with Outside In, Shelton emerged from her television cocoon a beautiful directing butterfly. 

This brings us to Shelton’s most recent film, Sword of Trust, which came out in the summer of 2019. Shelton returns to her comedic roots with Sword of Trust, making good use of the beloved comedian and podcast host Marc Maron. This film pulled a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, demonstrating that Shelton has continued to produce strong work since Outside In. Right now, Shelton is directing the new TV series Little Fires Everywhere, based on the popular novel by Celeste Ng. The eight-episode series is available to stream on Hulu. 

FF2’s mission is to give attention to films made by women, because only when films receive attention are their writers and directors given more opportunities. And only when writers and directors have created a body of work are they able to establish themselves as talented and respected creators in the field. 

The success of Humpday and Shelton’s subsequent career in television has allowed her to continue to make films. Because she’s been given the opportunity to keep working, her films have become better and better, leading to much more skillful and well-received films like Outside In and Sword of Trust. Shelton has worked tirelessly for over a decade in the film industry, building what I believe to be a truly impressive career, and she deserves just as much success, recognition and celebration as her male counterparts. 

© Julia Lasker (4/20/20) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Lynn Shelton on set in 2011 © IFC FILMS/EVERETT COLLECTION.

Middle photo: Chloë Grace Moretz and Keira Knightly in Laggies (2014)

Photos: Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell, and Jon Bass in Sword of Trust (2019)

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Julia Lasker
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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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