As Jackie and Don Seiden unintentionally describe themselves by way of an impromptu thought experiment: he’s the warm-hearted crocodile and she the intelligent mouse. They are opposites yet the same—incongruous creatures bound by a half-century of marriage that became more about building a life together rather than necessarily being together. Jackie is quick to mention how afraid she is of intimacy and Don is constantly doing things at his own pace separate from her, but neither could ever imagine themselves not having the other by their side at the end of the day to argue, pity, or share their latest work-in-progress. Age, however, has thrown a wrinkle in the independence they crave. As they deteriorate physically, they’re forced to confront everything they used to blindly ignore.
Director Daniel Hymanson filmed the couple over a five-year period, juxtaposing this new chapter in their lives with archival footage of their equally eccentric yet more robustly energetic past. Taking the title from one of Don’s sculptures, So Late So Soon proves a warts-and-all expression of love, companionship, and the struggles intrinsic to the proximity inherent in both and how age makes everything harder. Hymanson (a former art student of Jackie’s) focuses a lot of his footage on them quietly working (Don in his sketchbook and Jackie on the computer), steadily progressing time by way of their increasingly obstinate attitudes. One instance has them peering at the other’s projects with insight while another shows them using their art as an excuse from dealing with the other at all.
Jackie becomes the star either because Hymanson knows her better or because she proves the more extroverted of the pair. We see her dancing to Sade’s “Smooth Operator” in her living room before hearing how she’s always danced whether jogging or on roller skates, the motion part of her self-proclaimed “whirling dervish” personality. We hear her loud reactions to events big and small—always scaring Don into seeing what’s wrong regardless of him discovering it’s often nothing (or growing angry because she called out for people who aren’t present rather than him). Jackie wears her emotions on her sleeve and justifiably gets frustrated when Don responds with shock. She wants him to pay attention to the house as age slows her down and he’s ill-equipped to fully comply.
At times you must wonder if these two ever truly liked each other more than what the other brought to their lives. Both are unique in that they treat life like an art piece in and of itself. Their home is probably their most famous canvas with its rooms in a constant state of aesthetic flux as Jackie reassembles them with found objects to create worlds that only those invited inside can see. This film is as much about immortalizing the building (doubling as the offspring they never had) as it is portraying the inhabitants themselves, especially considering their waning health places its upkeep at risk. It’s no spring chicken either. Rats roam around (their feces becoming part of Jackie’s artistic ambiance) and leaking rain drips down walls.
It’s funny too because they never bicker about the art itself. Don will let Jackie string dental floss across the kitchen and help her for the trouble, but his wanting a tube of toothpaste to sit in his cup (and thus buy his own so as not to displace hers) earns a fight. That’s not to say she’s at fault, though. Her temper merely runs hot while Don ostensibly has none to speak about. He can let her anger slide off his back and comfort her when she needs it rather than hold a grudge. And when he begins to feel faint to the point of not getting down the stairs without assistance, she’ll be the first to lament his poor state and lend a hand.
And that’s pretty much the substance of So Late So Soon. Hymanson films them in good times and bad—present and past. We don’t see much of the latter (Jackie teaching kids to make art from objects one might not initially believe can be used for the task and Don crafting life-size, wire-molded aluminum foil sculptures of animals), but what we do catch helps provide context to the fact that how we meet these two today isn’t that different from how they’ve always been. While it’s interesting that we never learn about Don beyond his being a “sculptor” (he was supposedly a pioneer in the field of art therapy), it’s not unforgivably egregious since Hymanson’s goal is to document the couple’s dynamic rather than film their individual biographies.
The result can appear slight at times, but no less poignant in the aftermath. Most of the meat comes from Jackie talking to other people: telling a former student about her intimacy issues, regaling a group of friends with an anecdote about Don needing two chances to say “I do” at their wedding, and her tear-streaked realization that her love for the beauty of deterioration doesn’t carry over to her own body’s failure to let her be the person she was just a couple years prior. When she and Don are together, it’s more about what’s unspoken since the arguments are never as heavy as they seem and the silences never as empty. They love each other despite any knee-jerk regrets or sorrow. Sharing their life holds neither.
So Late So Soon opens in Chicago on November 19th and New York City on December 9th before rolling out further.