One of the first offerings of the SXSW Online was “See You Then,” directed by Mari Walker in her feature film debut. The film unfolds over the course of one night, when college exes Naomi (Lynn Chen, “Paper Tiger”) and Kris (Pooya Mohseni, “Thorp”) reunite over dinner after more than a decade of estrangement. Kris had ended their relationship abruptly and disappeared from Naomi’s life, resulting in unspoken, lingering resentment on Naomi’s part and guilt on Kris’s. What complicates things further is the fact that Kris, a transgender woman, has transitioned fully in the years since their breakup.
At the beginning of the night, Naomi doesn’t beat around the bush for long. Their breakup is addressed and seemingly resolved before the first restaurant scene is over. When they move to a bar, they talk about Naomi’s husband and two children, her frustrations with not having accomplished all the things she wanted to when she was young, Kris’s life after her transition and the ways they navigate the world as women. They occasionally broach their past and, for the most part, talk about it fondly. It seems as though everything is forgiven even when, of course, it isn’t.
The first half of the film moves slowly, falling into a steady and predictable pattern in which the main characters sit down somewhere and talk, and then walk through city streets together and talk some more. With Naomi and Kris as the only characters on screen for the vast majority of the film, conversation is all they have. But it often feels contrived, carefully and deliberately covering every popular issue about what it means to be an adult woman. Kris’s identity as a trans woman adds some nuance and depth to their discussions on womanhood, but Naomi’s major concerns are cliché: She’s dissatisfied with her husband, her loss of independence after starting a family and her work as a professor at the college she and Kris attended.
Their many conversations meander and lack a distinct sense of purpose until the latter half of the movie when, during a discussion about motherhood, the differences in their capabilities and goals create a real, compelling dilemma: Naomi never wanted to be a mother, but she has two children, whereas Kris has always wanted biological children, but she physically can’t have them. The last 20 minutes of the film are by far its best, when their old resentments collide with long-kept secrets and the issue of motherhood is revisited in an effective and brutal argument in Naomi’s studio on their old campus.
When they enter the space, the film gradually darkens and the score provides a low, persistent hum that ebbs and flows, and it makes what’s happening on screen feel more like a horror movie than anything else. Naomi and Kris circle each other, saying whatever they can to hurt the other person, and it’s always unclear whether or not they are going to lash out at each other physically. Even as they explode at one another, a coiled tension remains. Everything about the movie is at its strongest during this section.
But, when taken as a part of the whole, the argument feels unearned. The first hour of the film is made up of bland, good-natured catching up and discussions about life, with only the hint of an edge here or there. There are few, if any, signs that indicate the severity of the climax; the tension isn’t built effectively through the dialogue, and the performances give little indication that something is amiss between the two characters.
The question, then, is if the ending is worth it. The answer? Not really.
The movie doesn’t cohere well enough, and the conclusion, though strong, relies on somewhat tenuous links to Naomi and Kris’s previous conversations to anchor it to the rest of the movie. Otherwise, it feels like some of their grievances with each other are coming out of left field.
“See You Then” has a relatively short runtime, but the majority of the film is dark, quiet and hard to get through without being tempted to glance at your phone. It falls into the worst of mumblecore tendencies, and it lacks the momentum it needs to fully sell its emotionally effective, somewhat shocking ending.
Despite a few small moments of humor and glimpses into emotional honesty and resonance, “See You Then” is ultimately forgettable.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.