Independent film lost one of its bright lights Friday when writer-director Lynn Shelton died at the age of 54. The architect behind such gems as Your Sister’s Sister and Sword of Trust, Shelton was also a prolific TV director, working on shows like Mad Men and the recent Little Fires Everywhere. But her greatest achievement will always be Humpday, the superb 2009 comedy-drama about two straight men who dare each other to star in a gay porn together. It’s wonderfully fitting that one of the best films ever made about masculinity and male friendship was dreamt up by a woman.
Before Humpday, Shelton had a few movies to her credit, but nothing that had been widely seen, operating on micro-budgets alongside actors who collaborated with her to improvise their dialogue. Wondering where she fit in the wider film world, she similarly felt on her own island when it came to her sexual identity, saying in 2012, “There was a time where I had this fantasy that, if it weren’t for society’s taboos, anybody could fall in love with anybody. I’m kind of a shy bisexual, so I felt myself crushing on all kinds of people, including gay men.”
These thoughts got her wondering how straight men wrestled with sexual labels — and if there was something potentially funny in exploring how they’d react when their sense of themselves was threatened.
“I’ve always been interested in the boundaries of sexual identity and how rigid or fluid those boundaries might be for different people,” Shelton explained around Humpday’s Sundance premiere. “I thought taking two guys who were particularly invested in their ‘straightness,’ and placing them (or getting them to place themselves) in a situation that would challenge their heterosexuality would make for some interesting dramatic tension and awesomely squeamish humor.”
Out of that came the story of Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), longtime buddies who have drifted out of each other’s lives. Ben is married to Anna (Alycia Delmore), and while they seem happy, he’s somehow unfulfilled and restless — just like a lot of thirtysomething guys, he hasn’t fully crossed over into full-on adulthood. Then, one night, Andrew appears out of the blue at his front door, full of exciting tales of roaming the earth, going from one impromptu adventure to the next. These college chums haven’t been together in forever — Ben settled down; Andrew went wandering — and now there’s a subtle tension between them.
Already anxious about his placid domesticity, Ben gets upended by Andrew’s arrival, worried that his pal thinks he’s a sellout. And so, when they’re both at a party where it comes up that a local film festival will be spotlighting amateur porn, they call each other’s bluff and decide to make one. For two straight guys in spitting distance of middle age, the edginess of doing porn together ought to prove to everyone that they haven’t gone soft.
Humpday had such a terrific premise — straight dudes have to fuck one another on camera — that you could imagine what the zany Hollywood version of the film would be. Instead, Shelton went for something sweeter and more complicated, using her movie’s hook as a springboard to discuss all the ways that straight dudes freak out about their manhood. Long before Ben and Andrew even get into a room with a camcorder, they’re in full-on crisis mode.
Ben and Anna have been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, and maybe there’s a part of Ben that doesn’t really want to be a father. (When he goes out with Andrew to the party, flirting with attractive single people, he begins to remember what’s enticing about being unattached.) Meanwhile, Andrew’s rugged backpacking escapades inspire Ben’s envy — he’s still living life, man — but soon we get the sense that Andrew’s wanderlust is a way to sidestep a looming emptiness. He sees his adulthood as one great odyssey — what’s manlier than that? — but perhaps it’s because he’s afraid to go home and confront the parts of himself he hates. In the conversations and posturing that take place before they finally try to make the porn, Ben and Andrew discover that being penetrated isn’t what scares them — it’s intimacy itself, something that they’ve never been able to do with one another or anyone else.
By 2009, Hollywood was churning out a steady string of bromance films: everything from Wedding Crashers to I Love You, Man to every single Judd Apatow movie. These broad comedies celebrated male friendship, allowing a little tenderness but largely showing how the pals worked through their gay panic to become better, more mature men. Humpday was superficially similar to those films, but the honest exchanges — not just between Ben and Andrew but also between Ben and Anna — cut deeper and felt truer.
In part, it was because the actors drew from their own experiences. Leonard, for instance, had gone off to Mexico as a teenager to do volunteer work before moving around from Seattle to London to New York, scared of ever becoming a suburban drone and fearful of turning into a macho cliché. “I’m sure a lot of the guys I grew up with would punch me in the face for saying this,” Leonard said around the film’s release, “but I feel really lucky to have grown up in a generation where the archetypes about what it means to be a man have started breaking down and expanding.”
As for Duplass, he’d already co-written and directed (alongside his brother Jay) thoughtful, sensitive indies, like 2005’s The Puffy Chair, which examined manhood without resorting to bromance-y tendencies.
Shelton knew she’d picked the right two actors because they cared about the themes that she cared about. They were telling a story about beta males just as the term was starting to gain traction in the culture.
But, despite the beautifully modest, lived-in performances that her cast gave, Humpday is Shelton’s achievement. In her subsequent work, she’d continue to elicit incredibly intimate portrayals — it seemed like the words her characters were saying were deeply felt but also coming to them in that moment. Whether it’s Duplass’ grieving young man in Your Sister’s Sister or Marc Maron’s soulful grump in Sword of Trust, she had an eye for men who looked like typical guys but were, in reality, much more nuanced and emotional than we might have assumed. That was never truer than in Humpday, which is funny but also wise about marriage, friendship and the unsettled parts of ourselves that never entirely get resolved. And the movie didn’t cheat with its finale, finding a way for Ben and Andrew to confront their naked feelings in a very real, touching way.
A few years after Humpday, filmmaker Yvan Attal did a remake, called Do Not Disturb. Its ending is different, and while watching the new version, Shelton realized how much her sensibility had informed this story she’d hatched when she was a struggling artist thinking about genders and sexuality. “It really made it clear for me [that] what made this very male-based story different was because it was from my perspective,” she said last year. “I’m skewering maleness and male toxicity, and the tendency of males to be idiots in a very loving way is the crux of it.”
You can still feel that love in Humpday — the love she feels for these guys and the love they feel for one another, even if they have to make a porn together to finally acknowledge it.
It turns out, Lynn Shelton knew men better than they knew themselves.