Reviews

The Evolutionary Turning Point

Watching See You Then

The Golden Days of Hollywood are far behind us. We have successfully moved away from booming voices, formal dialogue between characters, exaggerated movement, and embellished facial expressions. Currently, we are living in the age of method acting, a true milestone for the film industry. Method acting encourages actors to embody their character in every sense of the word. Actors cloak themselves in new personas while adapting their distinguishing physicality and features to breathe life into the character. If we, as the audience, cannot distinguish reality from acting, a character from an actor, the  performance is often held in high regard. With such effort going into establishing the meticulous details and attributes of characters, developing an aesthetic and new voice for everybody of work, we can only surmise that writers spill their souls into their scripts to provide the nutrients required for a pulse of its own. A prime example in cinema’s evolution is Mari Walker’s directorial feature debut, See You Then. The 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film festival screened the world premiere of See You Then as a feature in the Narrative Spotlight category. See You Then was written by Walker and Kristen Uno and brought to life by Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen.

Two women back to back with the text, See You Then

Mari Walker’s directorial feature debut premiered at the 2021 SXSW festival.

See You Then is a film that revolves around a conversation between two exes, Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen). Despite a decade passing since the two shared space with one another, Naomi has agreed to meet Kris for dinner – both entirely unaware of where the night may take them. The conversation begins innocently enough as if their relationship had ended on mutual terms; however, as the night and conversation progress, we see just how much time can tint our memories of ourselves and one another. Naomi is now married with children, whereas Kris is recently single. Kris has since come to terms with her gender identity and has proceeded with her transition. As each layer peels away from the characters, secrets spill, and the baggage they brought to the table rears its ugly head. The cocoon of comfort and nostalgia unravels as perceptions fall out of alignment, Mohseni explains. As the conversation becomes more forward in nature, Chen and Mohseni describe, the two exes are presented with a unique opportunity to walk across the fire with one another. Continuing in the fire, steadily approaching the raw truth, will allow the two to form a relationship with one another based on who they are now rather than the faint memories of who they were in the past. See You Then functions as the symbolic journey we will all take across the fire, Mohseni describes, as we remove our rose-colored glasses and free ourselves from the past to become more present in our lives.

See You Then is made up of a great script, brilliant acting, and guided with stunning cinematography. The dialogue is so palpable it feels like you are eavesdropping on a private conversation that wasn’t meant to be filmed. Walker knew early on that she needed this film to be accessible to an entire audience regardless of where they lived, their gender, sexuality, race, or ethnicity. To do this, she explains, the characters had to be authentic, and their stories had to be approachable. To create an unmistakable sense of authenticity and approachability, Walker knew she had to get personal. Walker and Uno pulled directly from their own lived experiences to create candid and sincere dialogue. Walker expresses that she, much like Kris, had felt guilt about leading on former partners, utilizing relationships as a lifeline to normalcy. Maybe if she did stay within a relationship and have a family, she could repress who she was. Walker’s writing philosophy provided the intricacy needed within the script. Walker’s philosophy emerged in the early days of her transition. As she sat with internal turmoil, she realized we all go day to day with our own internal mayhem that we decide to not express outwardly. You never know how much someone is suffering based on their actions or words alone. Walker then realized she had to dig deeper and deeper into her characters’ lives and the communities they are surrounded by to truly embody the complexity of the human condition. Fortunately, Walker has come to understand that by accepting her own transgender identity, the world has opened far more than ever anticipated. Going through her transition presented Walker with opportunities for understanding and growth that she hadn’t experienced before, thus providing invaluable insight into her characters’ emotions and thought processes that had initially felt inaccessible. Kris and Naomi become incredibly vulnerable as they stumble through accountability, admitting that previous decisions and actions that might have felt justified at the moment have caused more harm than anticipated as the impact it had on the other is exposed. While Kris and Naomi’s personal histories and experiences may not be universal, confronting their past and coming to terms with the decisions they made is something we will all encounter.

See You Then explores the often-overlooked exploration and acceptance of self that happens after someone comes out. Often, films focus on a character’s coming out as the climax to the film, ultimately denying the audience access to the character after the moment outside a montage or resolution. When this happens, Mohseni notes, you don’t learn what the character is trying to achieve in their life or the sacrifices they had to make to get to where they are, which are critical aspects of everyone’s life, transgender or not. Therefore, introducing audience members to transgender characters beyond the coming-out stage in life provides hope in the longevity of our lives as transgender people and allows these characters to be at the forefront of their story rather than existing in the background. Frequently, we are shown the world through a cisgender lens; however, when transgender directors and writers utilize their firsthand experiences to tell their stories, they are able to provide necessary depth to these stories and we can finally see the layers behind each character, Chen describes. When transgender writers create transgender characters, they are undoubtedly written with love and authenticity that are not reliant on stereotypes, tokenization, fetishization, or trivializing of their experiences. Through the course of the film, we can understand that the guilt, feeling of failure, and insecurities that Kris and Naomi are trudging through are undeniably human. The two own their truth, the good and the bad, which further instills each of their stories’ universality.  Despite the film having almost exclusively two characters and a few location changes, the film is exceptionally substantial. The substance of the evening is a direct reflection of Mohseni and Chen’s undeniable talent. Mohseni and Chen have powerful on-screen conversations, both verbal and nonverbal, as they experience waves violently crashing as they attempt to ride out the storm of emotions throughout the entirety of the evening. The pair’s chemistry and natural presence also allows for their lines to look like they are being spoken directly from the heart rather than something that had been written and rehearsed.

In addition to the remarkable writing and acting, the cinematography propels the story forward. Walker embraces a point-and-shoot large-format style in which most of the film has a shallow depth of field. The chosen depth of field is beautiful as these shots draw you in so close that you can’t turn away. The intensity of these shots focused on the characters, rather than the world around them, provides an undertone of emotional conflict; the world that wraps around Kris and Naomi is isolative, which is as equally intangible as it is serene. Some scenes, alternatively, were shot using a deep depth of field to show familiarity within specific locations or the mutuality of desires and dreams. Walker explains that the artistry of cinema is the opportunity to walk through a world that is charmingly nuanced and fully dimensional, as we tie the laces of the character’s shoes on. From here, we experience things that we might not have known existed within the world before us. Walker hopes that this film provides audience members with a deeper understanding of the actions we take and the impact they have on others. We begin to understand and sympathize with both characters, we understand why Kris abandoned Naomi and feels guilty yet wants to patch things up, and we understand that Naomi is in no place to share this desire as she has continued to hold onto the resentments she built as a response to being abandoned. Naomi has built up many resentments that she isn’t ready to let go of yet in response to the sudden abandonment. Showing a duality of understanding among both characters is incredibly rare in film. From an early age, we are trained to identify good and bad characters, who broadcast obvious differences so as to not confuse the audience, leaving the audience unqualified to later identify with characters that embody both good and bad traits, despite being truer to our own lives. Mohseni warns that the duality that exists within each of these characters and is displayed over the course of their conversations, may cause some audience members to feel uncomfortable; however, she encourages you to sit with that discomfort. The discomfort that arises is a testament to the actual evolution that See You Then demonstrates as the intimacy, vulnerability, and rawness extend beyond the screen and into our consciousness. Despite the rising level of distress, it is crucial to also recognize that we all go through multiple phases in our lives and must learn to face the reality that we can never change our past decisions and actions. However, Walker assures me, there is always a way forward.

See You Then is the the feature debut for director Mari Walker. Photo by Katie Sanderson.

Walker is endlessly grateful for her team and the privilege of telling her story at this particular moment in time: a time where the entertainment industry has, and continues to, make monumental changes. However, in the same breath, Walker recognizes that progress within the film industry can equally regress as cinema follows the pendulum of culture that continuously swings back and forth. To keep on the right path, Walker incites that we all continue to support queer, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), and other minority voices who help the language of film grow. Similarly, she explains we must practice intentionality alongside our vocal support. Walker purposely has Asian-American representation in her films, a reflection of her own identity, whether in front of or behind the camera, because these stories have been largely absent in mainstream Hollywood. Walker, Mohseni, and Chen all agree that authentic representation is genuinely one of the most effective validation forms, particularly for characters of color. Chen specifically cites the power of realistic portrayals with her experience receiving letters from people of color and queer-identified individuals following her role in Saving Face, her first film, revolving around two Asian lesbians, despite having come out nearly 15 years ago.

Chen confidently expresses that See You Then will be no different as it will change the way people see themselves and the people in their lives. Mohseni agrees with this as the compassion and understanding shown for Kris exists far beyond her journey of gender acceptance and identity, allowing people to see that transgender people can be anyone, your friend, lover, ex, child, or neighbor. The conversation and much-needed compassion for those in the transgender community, particularly among transgender women of color, have to happen because there continues to be limited, if any, space for transgender people to feel comfortable coming out and being in the world, much less engaging with the world like many others take for granted.

There is an alluring nature to See You Then as it is a film that urges you to sit among the shades of grey in all of their beauty. We are allowed to see how a complex conversation can be incredibly moving, flow easily, and provide a heightened sense of authenticity without the need for vast monologues guiding them. We do not need scenes to be packed with unrealistic excitement at every turn to simply maintain a film’s entertainment value. Rather, we are encouraged to find the entertainment that exists in reality, seen in monotonous and uncomfortable conversations we have with both strangers and people we are close to. Watch this film and engage with the reality it presents to you. Engage in the discussion after the final credits roll, as there is enough space to create a follow-up narrative for the film based on your assumptions. Think about where the character may find themselves afterward and decide whether Kris and Naomi speak truthfully or spitefully. Only when we are presented with realism in films can we begin to analyze and engage creatively and critically in our own lives.

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Courtney Gardner is a film fanatic, photographer, and care supervisor. Outside of her day job, Courtney dreams of becoming a director. In her downtime, she interviews her way through film festivals in order to highlight the incredible talent and diversity among directors, actors, film crews, and production companies. Her mission for the film industry is to not only find representation but to maintain it at all costs.

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