In Appreciation of Lynn Shelton

Celebrating the late writer/director’s unique take on intimacy.

News broke over the weekend that Lynn Shelton passed away suddenly, reportedly of complications from a blood disorder. At only 54, Shelton seemed to still have at least 25 or 30 years of filmmaking left in front of her.

Even so, her existing body of work stands up against that of any other filmmaker, especially since it’s been just over a decade since My Effortless Brilliance, her directorial debut. Since then, she directed six films, writing five of those as well.

As her filmmaking evolved over a dozen years, you can see the scope of her storytelling expand ever so slightly, from just three or four closely-connected people in an isolated setting to stories of more extended circles of family and friends. Throughout that, though, she never stopped being fascinated by the way individuals related to and connected with each other. Sometimes that was funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes uplifting, just as in real life.

So, to mark the passing of a talent that still had so much to give, here is a brief appreciation of Lynn Shelton’s work.

Humpday (2009)

A funny and often uncomfortable look at a bromance and what happens when making stupid, drunk bets and declarations meets two guys who are too proud to back down in the cold, sober light of day.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

The relationship between two sisters is tested when one sleeps with the guy the other is secretly in love with, leading to an uncomfortable situation when all three wind up spending time at a remote island house.

Touchy Feely (2013)

One of my favorites of Shelton’s work, her focus on relationships and connections this time is channeled through a massage therapist who suddenly develops a complete physical aversion to all forms of physical contact. Meanwhile, others around her are exploring other connections and newfound outlets for their issues.

Laggies (2014)

While there have been no end of movies and shows about adult men who refuse to grow up emotionally, this one allows a young woman to be the immature, commitment-averse central figure in the story, all while showing off Shelton’s most balanced mix of heart and humor.

The TV Years

While she’d dabbled in directing a few TV episodes between 2010 and 2012, the period between 2014 and 2017 saw her moving almost exclusively to television, handing some of the most acclaimed shows in the recent era. That list included “Shameless,” “New Girl,” “The Good Place” and more.

It’s something she continued to move to in-between features, going on to direct episodes of “Glow,” “Dickinson,” “Fresh Off The Boat” and others, right up to this year’s Hulu-original series “Little Fires Everywhere.”

That she went on to continue making her own movies is a testament to not only her talent but the pull she seemingly accumulated in Hollywood. For many female directors, an initial burst of cinematic brilliance is quickly pushed to the side by those in power, and so they are relegated to television for decades if they want to continue working. Shelton, though, seemed to use a few years in TV to keep her skills sharp and gain experience that she then took back to films.

She said as much in an interview where she also addressed reports she’d been approached to direct the Black Widow solo film and considered it in part because TV projects had shown her the value of collaborating on sets. Still, she went on to finish her career with two strong films of her own making.

Outside In (2017)

Shelton came back to feature directing with a dark and slightly disturbing look at a man recently released from prison whose troubles readjusting to life on the outside include a fixation on the woman – a former teacher of his – who led the effort to prove his innocence.

Sword of Trust (2019)

Her last feature was also sold as Shelton’s most broad, thematically, showing what happens when a sword that is believed to be evidence the Confederacy never surrendered seems to surface and become an item everyone wants to have, even as it’s protected by the women who own it and the pawn shop owner who wants to cash in on it.


Sword of Trust – Marketing Recap

sword of trust poster

Writer/director Lynn Shelton is back with this week’s Sword of Trust. The movie stars Jillian Bell as Cynthia and Michaela Watkins as Mary, two women who set out to sell the antique sword Cynthia has inherited from her late grandfather. They come to believe the sword is somehow proof the Confederacy won the Civil War. 

That claim is met with skepticism by pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron), whom they try to sell it to. But a series of events changes his mind and the three, along with Mel’s assistant Nathanial (Jon Bass), set out to sell it and split the profits. The group doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing, though, and the people they encounter aren’t exactly of the highest moral character.

The Posters

As is often the case, studios don’t know quite how to sell Shelton’s movies. While it’s natural to focus on the characters when promoting a character-driven story, there’s nothing here beyond an arrangement of faces and a title treatment that looks like it’s pulled from a 90s low-budget teen comedy. It’s underwhelming.

The Trailers

Cynthia and Mary are trying to pawn their grandfather’s sword as the trailer opens, an item they claim proves the Confederacy won the Civil War. Mel is understandably skeptical. Word gets out that the sword exists and a lot of people wind up looking for it, leading Mel and the women teaming up to try and sell it for as much money as possible. No one knows what they’re doing, though, and there are lots of misadventures along the way.

Online and Social

Nothing much beyond the very basics on IFC’s page for the movie. It’s received support on the studio’s brand social channels but that’s about it.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Nothing I’ve seen, but it’s likely the studio has done some location-targeted advertising in New York and LA for opening weekend that could expand as the movie does.

Media and Publicity

The movie was among those debuting at SXSW, a debut that brought mixed reactions. IFC picked up distribution rights at the end of March. It was later announced as the opening night feature at the Seattle Film Festival.

This weekend’s limited release includes a Q&A with the cast and Shelton at New York City’s Landmark Theater.


It’s actually kind of remarkable how small-scale the campaign has been. While I understand this week’s release is just limited and that there’s little chance the movie achieves any sort of breakout success in the near-term, it’s still surprising there hasn’t been more of an attempt to capitalize on the positive buzz generated by the SXSW screening.

The trailer is quite good and does a decent job presenting the premise and the talent of the cast, but the rest of the marketing doesn’t know what’s going on or how to deal with things. Given Shelton’s reputation as a high-quality filmmaker with a sterling reputation, that’s surprising, even as it offers some indication of where the movie industry is at the moment.

Picking Up the Spare

Another interview with Shelton here about creating the characters and how her career has been going.  She also did an interview with Maron talking about conspiracy theories like the one featured in the movie. 

The notion of alternate histories also came up in this conversation while Maron appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie. He was interviewed about working with Shelton and his own take on conspiracy theories as well.