Lynn Shelton directed nine films that, if we are being honest, not many people saw. She worked with major talent in minor keys, making off-kilter comedies about characters in unusual situations. Her films tended to be simultaneously tight and loose and funny and sneakily warm. In fact, the best way to describe a Lynn Shelton film is to simply say, “It’s a Lynn Shelton film.”
Her breakthrough came with Humpday, a film about two heterosexual buddies who decide to take their relationship to the “next level” for the sake of an art project. While the premise sounds unlikely, Shelton’s matter of fact presentation made you believe these two straight men might just go through with it if only one of the two character’s wife could get on board.
The film was a hit a festivals, garnered fine reviews, and is loved by just about everyone I know who has seen it. Sure, that may only be about six people, but we happy few know from whence we speak when we extoll it’s many virtues.
Your Sister’s Sister with Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt followed. It’s a hard to categorize a film about two sisters and male friends sharing revelations during a getaway at a cottage. Like Humpday, it keeps you off balance and sneaks up on you with the depth of its warmth and feeling.
Her next film, Touchy-Feely, with Dewitt again, and Ellen Page wasn’t quite as well reviewed, but as with all Shelton films, holds much to be admired in telling the story of a massage therapist suddenly unable to bear physical contact.
My favorite film of Shelton’s came right after Touchy-Feely. Laggies may be the closest thing to a mainstream film Shelton ever made. It has genuine stars in its lead actors, Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, and Chloe Grace-Moretz – all of whom are simply wonderful in the film.
Laggies is basically a coming of age movie about a woman who should have already come of age. In the midst of a quarter-life crisis, Knightley’s character walks away from her boyfriend’s proposal to share a room with her new 16-year-old friend (Moretz) in her father’s (Rockwell) house, who she then strikes up a tentative romance with. On the face of it, it sounds like a terrible idea. In execution, it was sublime.
Laggies played for one weekend in my mid-sized Midwestern town. I had the entire theater to myself. I was free to laugh as loud as I would like and feel no shame as my lower lip quivered as the film came to an impossibly lovely close.
It’s a real shame that Laggies didn’t find an audience. Had it done so, I suspect Shelton’s brand might have found more success.
The commercial failure of Laggies had no effect on Shelton’s work rate though. Aside from making two more critically acclaimed features, Outside-In with Edie Falco, and Sword of Trust starring frequent collaborator (and romantic partner) Marc Maron, Shelton became quite in-demand as a television director.
As usual, her taste was unerring. She wasn’t just a director for hire shooting episodes of Hawaii Five-O or Law and Order: SUV (or is it SVU? Whatever). No, she continued to follow her muse in filming shows of high quality that operated on high wires.
An incomplete list of her television work includes such terrific shows as Mad Men, Master of None, The Mindy Project, Maron, Glow, The Good Place, The Morning Show, and most recently, four episodes of Little Fires Everywhere.
I have the feeling that Lynn Shelton was just beginning to enter her prime as a director. I also think we as an audience were right on the cusp to catching up to her as a feature filmmaker too.
While that is tragically now no longer a possibility, what we can do is go back and discover the films she was able to make. I suggest starting with Laggies and not stopping until you’ve seen everything. You can thank me later.
Lynn Shelton died yesterday. She was 54 years old.