SXSW 2021 Review: A Lifetime Ago Comes Back in a Night in Mari Walker’s Striking “See You Then”

Naomi (Lynn Chen) realizes Kris (Pooya Mohseni) isn’t the person she used to know in “See You Then” as early as she hears her order for dinner — a caesar salad — that she couldn’t have imagined her former flame would’ve ever considered back in college. “Like vegetables that come out of the ground?!?” Naomi has to clarify, recalling the steady diet of junk food Kris would inhale. In spite of Kris’ insistence to the waiter, “I’m actually super boring,” Naomi knows this is not in fact true and 13 years after last seeing each other, the occasion of her ex venturing down on a work trip to Chandler, Arizona, where she’s become a professor at the same school they used to attend, she’s got plenty of questions.

Still, there’s hesitancy on both ends about what’s safe to ask in Mari Walker’s compelling feature debut when it isn’t only the two seeing each other for the first time since their abrupt breakup years earlier that makes the evening bound to be a little awkward, but that Naomi only learned from a mutual friend that Kris had transitioned in the interim, truly making their past together another lifetime ago. You wouldn’t know it, however, from either the ease between Mohseni and Chen pick things up like old times as Kris and Naomi, respectively, or how Walker and co-writer Kristen Uno structure the unfolding conversation to yield the most emotionally vivid results, taking a formula usually dispatched in the service of two strangers coming to realize they have a connection over the course of a night to looking at how it was impossible for Kris and Naomi to maintain theirs.

Rather than ever being seen as an obstacle, Kris’ transition opens up a dialogue the two could never have had before, comfortable enough from what the relationship they had to speak freely about their lives now and even the dynamics of their relationship with the additional empathy of now sharing the same gender. But the fork in the road left by Kris’ past decision to leave town without warning remains as sharp as ever, and while Naomi has had the time to process any anger and surprise long ago, with a kindly curiosity taking its place, the implications of Kris understandably putting her own needs above Naomi’s create a fascinating dramatic dilemma in which both characters are entirely justified in their emotions yet what was broken is unlikely to be fixed, no matter how sympathetic they are to one another’s perspective.

Not only do Mohseni and Chen make for a spirited pair to follow, but Walker and cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott add a real energy to the proceedings with the vibrant framing and lighting choices that engage visually as much as the conversation at hand. “See You Then” comes off as breezy and effortless, but the craft emerges in every line and every frame where seemingly benign remarks are often revealed to be indicative of something much deeper and in the nightosphere, the brilliant colors that break through the dark are an extension of the earnest attempts at honesty and connection in spite of Kris and Naomi’s instincts to protect themselves and each other from any further pain. Even if their romance ended, the love between the pair endures, expressed beautifully by the film even when its characters struggle with ways to communicate it with each other.

“See You Then” will screen at SXSW on March 16th beginning at 8 am CST.