Lynn Shelton has carved out a niche for herself by presenting the inertia of contemporary middle-class life and exploring the state of arrested development her characters often find themselves affected by. Her tales of self-actualisation, like Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and last year’s Touchy Feely aim to capture the brief moments of connection in a world that’s becoming increasingly insular and self-obsessed. However, Shelton’s latest Say When (2014) – the tale of a confused and aimless twenty-something, played by Keira Knightley – sadly shares its protagonist’s lack of direction. Despite her advanced degree and comfortable lifestyle Megan’s (Knightley) life is in stasis.
Her old school gang are now either pregnant or getting married and she soon begins to feel a little out of place. During a friend’s wedding, Megan’s dopey-eyed, wet-blanket of a boyfriend attempts to propose to her, leading Megan into an emotional tailspin that sees her flee the nuptials and drive off into the night. Outside a convenience store she bumps into a group of teenagers and is coerced into buying them beer – seeing it as a natural role reversal and an obligatory rite of passage. However, instead of cementing her status as an adult the opposite happens, and Megan befriends the savvy and confident leader of the group, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) eventually hiding out at her jaded father’s (Sam Rockwell) house while she attempts to put her life in order.
Predominantly a male populated sub-genre full of man-boys in the grip of midlife crises, the coming-of-age-too-late movie typically plays on the erroneous ideal that the straight, middle-class white man is the default relatable figure for modern viewers. Whist representing the overwhelming majority in Hollywood, they’re still a minority across cinema audiences and it’s refreshing to see a female perspective in a world polluted by the foul odour of self-doubting testosterone. However, whilst Shelton is adept at expressing these types of intrinsically privileged tales of anxious characters caught in a bubble of self-entitlement, here her cast feel superimposed against the grey Seattle skyline. Knightley, Moretz and Rockwell are as vibrant and charming as ever, yet can’t make it through a scene without hitting a bum note, or losing sight of their motivation. Thankfully this allows smaller performances like Annika’s friend, Misty (played with real verve and tenacity by Kaitlyn Dever) to shine.
In what has regrettably become a trademark of her fledgling oeuvre, Shelton’s characters lack empathy, and for the most are genuinely dislikeable. Whilst we don’t go to the movies to make friends, it’s hard to relate with these character’s mundane existential predicaments from such a distant vantage. Unfettered from reality, and dependant on contrived plotting and a cloying score by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Shelton keeps a safe distance from the on-screen hostility and, like her characters, desperately tries to avoid any form of confrontation. Megan’s search for answers rather predictably leads her into the arms of Rockwell, an unlikely saviour, but the most grounded member of a weightless cast. It’s hard to decipher if Say When is proposing we settle for a world where career trajectories and financial success are the milestones of life, or if maybe we just need to be a little more ‘right-on’, either way it’s clear that Shelton still doesn’t understand the numerous complexities that keep her character’s floating through life unhappy, bewildered and caught in a vacuum of privileged despondency.