With the median age of Americans rising and so many Gen-Xers caring for Boomer parents, Daniel Hymanson’s empathetic if uneven debut documentary “So Late So Soon” is likely to strike a chord among many viewers.
Hymanson has known his protagonists for decades, and wants us to get to know them intensely, too. His fly-on-the-wall approach brings us right into the colorful but crumbling Victorian house shared by Chicago couple Jackie and Don Seiden. Both are installation artists who have used, and continue to use, their home as a personal gallery space. Moreover, Jackie has often focused on the beauty of disintegrating materials, while both she and Don have captured much of their life on video and audio recordings. Theoretically, this gives Hymanson a lot of raw materials.
Surprisingly, then, it’s not their unique creativity but their strikingly ordinary emotions that provide the most impactful moments. As she nears 80, Jackie intends to fight furiously, to find meaning rather than despair in her own physical, mental, and emotional decline. Don, who is in his late 80s, seems to feel that a fight will not only be futile but counterproductive, a drain on the energy he still has left.
Jackie, the more emotionally open of the pair, seems to be having a much harder time with the process. As she discovers, it’s one thing to choose to ponder concepts critically and quite another to be forced to experience them. Though she’s determined to celebrate her decaying kitchen, she’s also saddened by her inability to fix it. She’ll still dance wildly in her living room, but sits safely and unhappily on the sidelines at her beloved roller rink.
She makes sweeping declarations, like her announcement that “I do not like intimacy. I do not want intimate relationships, I simply cannot handle it,” while then behaving in entirely contradictory fashion. She is, in fact, in a constant state of engagement — with the world, with the camera, with material, with Don.
She therefore gets increasingly frustrated with her husband, not least for handling his trials in a much quieter manner. There is some amusement, or at least comfort, in their bickering; having been married for 50 years, they prove altogether human in their refusal to learn from experience. So they revisit all the fights that any younger couple might, over who does which chores, who cares more about the other, whose way is right and whose is wrong.
It’s true that Don is as taciturn as Jackie is expressive. It’s tough even for the audience to know what he’s thinking, since he keeps his emotions so closely bound. But that also requires Jackie to carry most of the film’s drama. As a result, individual response to the intensity of her disposition will go a long way toward determining one’s reaction to the movie as a whole.
This does, unfortunately, also speak to the film’s primary weakness, since the movie really does rise or fall on personality. Hymanson himself seems so taken by Jackie — a longtime friend who taught him art when he was a preschooler — that he often assumes it’s enough for us simply to watch her. She discovers evidence of a mouse in their kitchen, so we follow her around as she looks all over for droppings. She’s angry with Don so we listen in, awkwardly, as she renegotiates their old arguments. Even their copious vintage footage, which should be a great asset here, is used very straightforwardly, and not to the story’s full advantage.
Nevertheless, the intimate nature of Hymanson’s method does make this feel like a collaborative work between the three of them. Jackie’s proud eccentricity, her limitless desire, and her rejection of vulnerability are both challenging and inspiring. The same is true for Don’s gentler pursuit of his passions, as well as his stoic acceptance of mortality. And then there’s the way they balance their individuality and interdependence while embracing life and facing death. “So Late So Soon” is as imperfect, and as idiosyncratic, as the home they created together.
“So Late So Soon” is currently screening in Chicago and opening Dec. 9 in New York before platforming nationwide.