The young Kate in We Go Way Back.

It’s been almost a week since Seattle director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Sword of Trust) died unexpectedly at 54 of a previously undiagnosed blood disorder. The tributes and remembrances have been profuse and arrive with that strange mix of heartbreak and consolation. You can read them on Crosscut or in The Stranger, or listen to Marc Maron’s devastating introduction to an episode of his podcast, in which he and Shelton talked for the first time. Eventually the two became creative and romantic partners.  

Or you can head to Northwest Film Forum’s site, where the theater has posted remembrances from staffers past and present, as well as from fellow Seattle director Megan Griffiths (there’s also a recent Zoom call the two recorded). Originally, today, the theater had planned to livestream Shelton’s first feature film, We Go Way Back from 2006, to celebrate the NWFF’s 25th anniversary. She was supposed to take over the comments section. Instead the comments are for fans and friends, where they can post memories of Shelton. The stream, on NWFF’s Facebook Videos page, is free and starts at 6pm tonight.

I’ve been a fan of Shelton’s movies for years but hadn’t seen We Go Way Back. So I watched it last night and was struck by the precise mix, of humor and honesty and magnanimity, she so consistently offered. The movie centers on Kate, who’s just turned 23 and lives in Ballard. She’s gotten a letter from her 13-year-old self: “Are you happy?”

She is not. She is 23 and lost and trying to become an artist in a local theater, even as the men around her treat her as sort of prop on which they impose their sexual and artistic impulses. She's just finished a part where she's on stage a lot, but mostly she's dead. Then the theater director casts her as the lead in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. He asks her to, you know, learn Norwegian so she can perform her part in Isben’s original words, while the other actors speak English. Also, can she pick up a ton of potatoes to use as stage props? (The piles of potatoes on a largely empty stage are one of the movie’s best visual jokes.) The other men around her—other actors, her Norwegian teacher—just start kissing her and when she responds passively, apathetically, they take advantage. 

The movie gets increasingly surreal. Eventually the 13-year-old Kate manifests physically and confronts her older self. Shelton had a lot to say here about being young and adrift, about the casual misogyny in the arts and in the world and its effects on budding artists, and about the ways our present selves contain our past selves—like a series of Russian dolls stacked within each other, sometimes ill-fitting. A piece of art can contain a version of a self, too. This movie does—one with a cinematic voice that developed over over 14 years, but was always honest and Seattle as fuck.

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