[originally published in The Herald in 2008]
For some reason, the local area has been a haven for filmmakers who prefer an experimental mode to traditional storytelling. Feature-length experimental films are a notoriously tough sell, but a few recent items, such as Gregg Lachow’s Money Buys Happiness and Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, have broken through to national attention.
Now you can add Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back to that list. This film was shot hereabouts, including Seattle and Whidbey Island, and produced by The Film Company, a Seattle non-profit film studio. Earlier this year it won Best Narrative Film at the Slamdance Film Festival—that’s the hip fest that serves as an alternative to the better-known Sundance.
At the center of the story is Kate, played by Amber Hubert, who turns 23 as the movie opens. She works for a small theater company, doing some acting but also accounting work and a little catering. She’s the kind of person who hasn’t learned to say no—including to a fellow actor who pounces on her at her birthday party.
At the party, the theater’s director (Robert Hamilton Wright) announces that she will play the lead in their next production, the Ibsen classic Hedda Gabler.
All of this is overwhelming to Kate, and she takes solace in a letter she wrote to herself at age 13—to be opened on her 23rd birthday. The voice in the letter is bright, sharp, clever—nothing like the passive woman we see in adulthood.
At first, We Go Way Back unfolds along conventional lines. The scenes at the theater are very funny, as the director goes increasingly wiggy with his conceptual ideas for Hedda. These include Kate speaking her dialogue in the original Norwegian.
These sequences are aided by the deft comic performance of Wright, a longtime local stage actor. One might point out that some of the wilder notions the director has—like obsessively working potatoes into the stage business—are meant to be laughed at, while the film’s own experimental ideas are meant to be taken straight.
But Shelton makes these ideas—such as the appearance of Kate’s 13-year-old self (Maggie Brown)—work, on the movie’s hushed level. It’s beautifully shot and has a terrific soundtrack of songs, many by local acts such as Laura Veirs and Harvey Danger. Stubbornly outside the mainstream, We Go Way Back has the feel of an early-70s American independent, willing to challenge the audience to follow it into a very personal, uncommercial direction.