‘We Go Way Back’: Double trouble

May 2, 2011

I was a big fan of Lynn Shelton’s 2009 film, “Humpday,” so I was interested to see her 2006 film “We Go Way Back,” which is having a brief release in New York at the moment.

And the film pays off early, with the kind of offbeat humor that marked “Humpday” and made it so surprising. Unfortunately, the comedy in this film seems like an afterthought, a throwaway subplot. In fact, it offers the film’s best moments.

For the first half of the film, you can almost kid yourself into believing that these witty sidetrips – to the agonizing rehearsals for a small theater company’s production of “Hedda Gabler” – are what the film is about. But then Shelton gets “serious” – and “We Go Way Back” dissolves into arty murk.

Amber Hubert plays Kate, a struggling actress who fills a lot of jobs (including bookkeeper) at a small theater company in Seattle. On her 23rd birthday, she’s surprised with a party at the theater (for which she’s been asked to bake the cake). At the party, the company’s director (Robert Hamilton Wright) tells her he thinks she’s ready to play Hedda Gabler in a production he’s about to mount.

One catch: She’ll have to learn Norwegian. His concept calls for her to say her lines in Ibsen’s native tongue, while everyone else in the cast will be speaking English.

Also on her birthday, she finds a letter she wrote to herself when she was 13. In the letter, she asks herself what she’s doing, whether she’s married, happy, famous and all the other things she hoped she’d be by this time. The letter itself seems to haunt her, coming to mind unbidden at moments when she’s least proud of herself.

Most of these have to do with men. She’s the object of lust for a lot of them in her circle; she’s on the receiving end of advances from several – and never resists (though she barely seems to join in). She’s apathetic and lonely, having just broken up with a boyfriend.

She’s also unhappy with her job: She’s a secretary who seems to be perpetually behind in the tasks assigned her by her bossy superior.

Eventually, the letters from her younger self take human form – and suddenly she’s being accompanied by a physical manifestation of her 13-year-old self (played by Maggie Brown, who bears a strong resemblance to Hubert). Yet this is the least satisfying part of Shelton’s film; she doesn’t need to go surreal or wherever she thinks she’s going to convey the dissatisfaction Kate feels with her life.

Better that Shelton should have focused on Kate’s interior musings, set against that awful production of “Hedda Gabler,” which grows sillier and funnier with each crackpot idea the director inserts (for some reason, he has the characters peeling potatoes from a gigantic pile during most of the scenes). It’s a wonderful spoof of the kind of harebrained artistic concepts that desperate “geniuses” grasp for – and could have made a whole movie.

Still, for its first half, “We Go Way Back” is involving and moody. I’m eager to see what Shelton comes up with next.

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