Watching a director’s first feature after you’ve seen the rest of their work is always interesting, because rather than seeing their natural progression as a storyteller and filmmaker, you view the debut with a different lens because you’ve come to know the artist through other efforts. Getting a chance to see Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back was one of those situations – I’ve become a massive fan of her work over the last six years, but only recently had the chance to see her confident, heady, and introspective first film that when viewed in retrospect, feels like an obvious and natural start for her as a creator of filmed stories. Yes, there are some first time filmmaking stylistic ticks that pop up here and there, but I’m all for formal experimentation – film is a visual medium first and foremost so I’m always down for jump-cuts and elliptical editing and stylish fades and transitions. Not that this is a Tony Scott film or anything, but Shelton definitely played with style more than most first time filmmakers who are crafting a low-key and completely character driven piece (i.e. no guns, car chases, explosions, for fancy vulgarity), and it’s within the expressive nature of her then emerging aesthetic that you can see how she’s arrived at a comfortable current spot with her overall style and intent as a moviemaker.
Shelton’s engaging and at times unnerving narrative pivots on a young woman named Kate (the excellent Amber Hubert, with a face of limitless possibility in terms of conveying angst), a fledgling Seattle actress who has just been offered her first starring role (under the direction of a possibly insane local theater director), but begins to essentially have an existential crisis and comes into contact with the physical manifestation of her 13 year-old self. Or so she thinks. This is a stream of conscious type film, with the opening scenes containing jumbled dialogue that mixes current day activities for the 23 year old Kate and the audible memories of her as a teen, with an Altman-esque sense of overlapping in an effort to immerse and quickly confuse. There’s also the recurring motif of Kate reading question filled letters that she had written to herself 10 years previous, all of which reflect on the various behaviors we see her engaging in during the story. The seemingly naïve questions that she has asked herself come to inform the decisions (some poor, some promising) that she makes during the narrative.
Not content to just make a “point and shoot” debut effort, Shelton infused the relatively brief runtime (75 minutes) with enough emotional pathos and cerebral questions to leave one with a rich cinematic experience, rather than a slight experiment with film school pretensions. Shelton’s sense of place is firm from the outset, using the physical surroundings as a character to a certain extent (a theme that’s been carried on in every feature since), while never losing sight of the dramatic task at hand – how to take the viewer through a personal, hopefully cathartic ride through the mind of a young woman who doesn’t know herself as well as she might like. And when viewed as a warm up to My Effortless Brilliance and then Humpday, We Go Way Back feels even more understandable and interesting within Shelton’s naturalistic if pensive worldview. The film won awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, clearly marking the arrival of a major new talent in American independent cinema, and will finally be available on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.