Lynn Shelton’s debut is one of those miraculous films where a seemingly slight, well-trodden premise morphs into a crucible of great emotional depth, through its director’s sure hand and the intriguing rendering of its subject matter.
The film follows Kate (Amber Hubert), a young, put-upon, people-pleasing actress who begins to question her life when she opens a letter that she had written to herself when she was 13-years-old. On the surface, Kate’s life seems to be going well. She is well-liked, has an active social and romantic life, and has been cast as the titular role in a production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. However, as Kate drifts through a series of casual romances and increasingly bizarre changes to the production she is working on (from having Kate speak Hedda’s lines in the original Norwegian to having the cast constantly peeling potatoes whilst on stage), she begins to question if she has become separated from both herself and the passions which inspired her younger self. This is impressively visualised when the film shifts from its realist mode into the mode of magical realism, and Kate’s younger self (Maggie Brown) starts to follow her around and even interact as a semi-autonomous character.
Whilst the theme of our older selves betraying the ideals of youth has long been the source of much fiction, what makes Shelton’s film so fresh and effective is the commitment with which she renders her narrative. The images of drinking, casual sex and other signifiers of bohemian city living set against more wholesome images of the wonderment of nature could become hackneyed in a less gifted director’s hand, but in Shelton’s carefully composed and edited film, these are handled lightly and with conviction.
The film’s deft mixture of pathos and absurdist comedy, together with Shelton’s ability to craft fully rounded characters from even the most ostensibly inconsequential bit parts, provided an early indication of the stylistic dexterity that would inform such later films as Humpday and her most recent effort, Sword of Trust. Perhaps more than that though, We Go Way Back is a reminder to hold on to the drives and ideals that inspired and motivated us when we were young.