For the Love of Lynn

A Seattle filmmaking force

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

While Seattle boasts its fair share of cultural icons, its relationship with those legends tends to be, well, complicated. Folks such as Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, while bright, blazing talents, burned out long before they had the chance to fade away. Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch, aka Beast Mode, a widely embraced sports superhero, wore his fame uncomfortably, and his utterance of “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” is as much a part of his legacy as his exploits on the field.

That was not the case for Seattle’s most famous filmmaker, Lynn Shelton. Unfailingly kind, artistically adept and quick to share both her time and abundant talent, she was not only respected, but also beloved, universally so.

That’s why when news hit of her sudden death May 15 from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder, it caused a ripple that went from the highest echelons of the Hollywood elite right on down to the Seattle community she remained an active and enthusiastic part of. Luminaries such as Reese Witherspoon, Ava DuVernay, and Judd Apatow paid tribute to the prolific director, using words like “inspiring, brilliant, genius” and “courageous” to describe her work, “kind, loving, pure joy” and “sunny” about her personality, and “horrendous, devastating” and “heartbreaking” to convey the sense of loss left in the wake of her death.

But it is in Seattle, the city she so loved, that Shelton’s passing is most keenly felt. While the national press focuses most strongly on the prodigious director’s most well-known projects—episodes of Little Fires Everywhere, Mad Men, Glow, and The Mindy Project, for instance—her films, shot in and around Seattle, are the true showcases of her both her great skill and the big heart she brought to everything. They’re also the best examples of the granular style at which she excelled, that of telling small stories about realistic characters through ample use of the improvisation she both encouraged and adored.

Shelton’s true gift was for fearless creativity combined with a nurturing nature that evoked trust and enabled her to get performances from her actors that were entertaining as well as profoundly human. Nowhere were those skills more on display than in Humpday, her breakout film. The premise is as simple as it is rife with comedic opportunity: Two heterosexual males (one played by Mark Duplass, frequent Shelton coconspirator) agree to make a gay porn film on a dare and submit it to the Stranger’s Hump! film festival. In the hands of a lesser director, this movie would be little more than an excuse for reductive jokes and toilet humor, but with Shelton at the helm it instead becomes an insightful observation of masculinity, and while it features jokes aplenty—many of them improvised on the spot—we laugh with its characters rather than at their expense, a hallmark of Shelton’s deeply empathetic style if ever there was one.

If Humpday was the movie that acted as an announcement of a fresh force in filmmaking, Your Sister’s Sister was the one that put Shelton on the map and saw her staking out her cinematic terrain. This time, she opted to make a rom-com—one that took the accepted conventions of that genre and transformed them into something decidedly unconventional. She once again tapped Duplass to play her male lead, a man named Jack, struggling emotionally in the wake of his brother’s death. Jack accepts an invite from his brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) to stay at her family cabin in the San Juans, and when he shows up, he finds Iris’ lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) in residence and trying to recover from a loss of her own. An unlikely romantic tryst ensues, Iris shows up forming an even unlikelier romantic triangle, long-hidden feelings are confessed, things get complicated, someone takes their frustrations out on a bike, someone else takes a pregnancy test, and everyone comes away having learned that family takes many forms, intentional or not.

It’s worth noting that nearly every single feature film directed by Shelton was lauded by critics, but few more than the final one she made before her unexpected death, Sword of Trust Firing on all cinematic cylinders, and with an excellent cast that includes Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, the always memorable Dan Bakkedahl, and a brilliant turn by her romantic partner Marc Maron, Shelton weaves a somewhat ridiculous yarn about a Civil War-era sword that is said to be definitive proof of the South’s victory in the bloody conflict. Maron plays an acerbic pawnshop owner tasked with unloading the sword on the black market, which kicks off a wild journey through terrain marked by conspiracy theories and the belief in Southern supremacy. Pithy without being preachy, this is the rare comedy that manages to satirize the sins of far-right politics without looking down on the sinners.

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