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So Late So Soon Review: Art in the Face of Death

So Late So Soon is a touching documentary that works due to the uniqueness of its subjects and the dignity shown towards them.

None of us can escape death, and the fear of what is on the other side has puzzled thinkers for generations and given ample opportunity for artists to speculate. Be it the personification of the grim reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or the looming threat in the Final Destination franchise, most media involving death either as a concept or a character has the protagonist doing everything in their power to avoid it. In Daniel Hymanson’s So Late So Soon, death lurks in the background of Jackie and Don Seiden, a couple in their fifth decade of marriage who were prominent artists and continue to create as both their home and bodies slowly begin to fail.

Central to the success of any documentary is the choosing of a subject that is interesting enough to warrant an entire film. Recently, we’ve seen a Macedonian beekeeper in Honeyland and a group of politically-minded teenagers in Boys State that have been able to hold our attention either through the specificity of their experiences or the larger parallels that their narratives suggest. The Seidens have become a fixture in their local community: Jackie was a teacher at an art school, and a photographer and sculptor whose work was frequently shown in local galleries. Much of her work focuses on decomposition and the passing of time. When we first meet her, she is looping string around her kitchen to make a spiderweb of sorts, and attempting to suspend a toy cow in the tangle. It’s not clear exactly why she’s doing this, and her husband doesn’t seem to understand either, but it sets the stage for what we can expect for the next 70 minutes.

Don is much less active than his wife, though he enjoyed the same reputation. Most notably, he constructed a rhinoceros out of paper mâché in the 1980s that is still on display. He doesn’t share the same active lifestyle as his wife and mostly stays home. The two are a wonderful couple and their interactions are always interesting to witness, be it pointless bickering over misplaced objects or questions about their lives and what they can expect of the future. Hymanson keeps the camera distant and uninvolved, trusting in the appeal of the subjects and letting their domestic life play out to great effect. At one point, Jackie simply dances around the living room, deftly avoiding the various materials scattered on the floor and holding remarkable energy for someone so advanced in years. This scene and others give So Late So Soon an interesting resemblance to the Maysles brothers’ seminal classic Grey Gardens, with its similar focus on past glory and the question of what happens once one’s creative peak has passed and faded.  

It’s almost inappropriate to write a detailed analysis about So Late So Soon, because it feels like a movie to experience, internalize, and move on from. Both Don and Jackie are worried about their future: their house is slowly falling apart and Don’s health declines as the film progresses, but each reacts differently. Jackie does her best to stay active with her friends and family, and attempts new projects that we never see to completion, but often becomes agitated when reminded of the state of her house that she is unable to fix or her body beginning to catch up with her age. Don has made peace with his situation and is generally easygoing. Neither one can escape their age, but both are doing their best to cope with the loss of their youth which they enjoyed so much.

In the end, the message seems to be to enjoy the time you have now so that you can look back fondly on it later. Throughout the film, we see interviews and news stories about the couple in the prime of their life, directly contrasted with their current lives. I don’t think Hymanson is trying to suggest that their lives are less fulfilling than they once were, but that each stage of life has its own opportunities that one should take advantage of. So Late So Soon doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the other documentaries mentioned, but it’s a touching and engrossing look at aging and creativity that is worth your time. 

So Late So Soon will be screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival from Saturday, October 24.

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