By Di Golding

Mailed on November 27, 2014

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Dear Debbie Betson
Tortoise Wrangler

Dear Debbie,

You’ve wrangled many animals in the past, mainly dogs, and mainly on kid’s movies. All of which, I’m sure, requires a level of patience as a job prerequisite. But director Lynn Shelton’s latest mumblecore musing, Laggies, ambles along at a deliberate pace. Shelley, the tortoise in your charge, moves so slowly that sometimes it must have seemed like she wasn’t going anywhere—but to Shelley, it probably felt like everything was blurring past at warp speed.

28 year-old Megan is overeducated and underemployed. She lives with her high school sweetheart Anthony while working sporadically for her dad. Megan is content to stand on the sidelines as her high school besties tick off the wedding and baby boxes on their checklists. When Anthony suddenly proposes, Megan pretends she has a week-long seminar to attend, but instead hides out with her teen friend Annika. During that week, Megan vicariously relives her high school years and makes some serious decisions about her future.

While other animal actors need constant grooming and PETA-approved trailers, it must have been refreshing to work with an actor and a director who are so low maintenance. Shelton often shoots in her native Seattle, which gives Laggies an unobtrusive, organic quality. She does away with the glamourizing that plagues many quarter-life crisis films. Keira Knightley’s Megan looks less like a Chanel spokesmodel and more like the poster child for an Old Navy factory outlet. The homes and cars are unapologetically suburban, and instead of fancy coffee shops or nightclubs, the characters visit drive-thrus and strip mall restaurants. Megan doesn’t want the same cookie-cutter life as her friends, and it’s easy to see why it’s taken her so long to admit to herself that she’s outgrown them; their lives are comfortably bland.

The cast – Shelley The Tortoise included – is the best kind of understated. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Annika’s sadness about her mother’s absence matter-of-factly rather in the mode of a default Hollywood emotion. When Annika’s dad discovers Megan in the house, he sits her down for a friendly but guarded chat. Sam Rockwell possesses a rare, innate charm that can convince an audience he would let a strange woman stay at his house and not hit on her, while simultaneously making us wish he would. Knightley’s recognition of her untenable stasis is never forced, nor does her evolution feel artificial. She tells her sensitive new-age fiancée that her power animal is a tortoise, and it’s easy to see why he believes her.

Shelton has a knack for filming the literal and figurative spaces between people, and Andrea Seigel’s contrived (albeit likeable) script is at home in Shelton’s navel-gazing universe. She balances the self-analytical tone without allowing it become too precious or too cynical. The turtle-as-power-animal metaphor might have been a bit too facile if it wasn’t for the cast’s sincere delivery of Seigel’s unironically witty dialogue. It doesn’t take a tortoise wrangler to know that their shell protects a fragile soul. What’s less obvious (and perhaps more cumbersome) is the weight of our lives and how we owe it to ourselves to build ones worth carrying around for the long haul.

As every famous tortoise knows, life is a long distance race, not a sprint to the finish.



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