by Tess McGeer
In the very first moments of Todd Louiso’s Hello I Must Be Going there is a close-up on Melanie Lynskey’s eyes where they are so dark as to look pupil-less, or all pupil, a void left wide open and swallowing her world whole. Striking and doleful, this long-lashed gaze is the only part of her lethargy that retains any sort of prettiness. Her character, Amy, is fully in tatters—fully frozen inside a life she never meant to have. A reluctant divorcee with no career prospects to speak of, Amy is hiding out inside her parents plush Connecticut home (literally, she has not left it in three months) less to lick her wounds than to luxuriate in them. The film is her rebirth story, one that suggests she was never really much alive to begin with.
Melanie Lynskey makes a very winning loser. She fills Amy with a kind of quiet earnestness that keeps this moping mess of a lead from ever becoming too loathsome. Amy begins the film raw and helpless at the hands of her own fear, her shame; she shuffles and sighs and seems scared even in this lazy slow motion, an adult woman wrapped in dirty t-shirts and bruised feelings and sleeping all day. She’s bathed in the kind of pain that you don’t want to look at—so easy to recognize, so easy to remember all the holes in yourself. The hurt of what was done to you by someone else and the greater hurt of having let them; this throbbing ego, weak and stinging now. Amy, sweating in a clothing store and shrinking down inside herself before a high school classmate, a tenderness we find obscene while knowing the taste entirely. But her dark eyes are commanding even as they’re flickering nervous or hanging wide like a startled deer, a sadness that’s never made glamorous but still retains a certain ability to compel. The change Amy undergoes in the course of the movie can be mapped just by watching the way her gaze begins to settle and intensify, a metaphorical light sputtering back on behind her eyes.
Amy meets a boy. A boy-boy. Jeremy. He’s nineteen. It’s the dude who dumped Brian Williams’ daughter on Girls (otherwise known as Christopher Abbott), here with shorter hair and looking incredibly, dew-drippingly young. They meet at a dinner party in service of her father’s business. Her father is an aging lawyer who needs to seal one last big deal with an important client—a man named Larry with neat hair and a low throaty laugh to prove he’s moneyed—before he can retire and pass the business on to Amy’s eager brother, and finally take her mother (Blythe Danner, excellent in a beleaguered, pecking-hen role) on the trip around the world she’s been planning in vain for years. The trip has been titled “Gallivanting Around the Globe.” Late at night, over a Marx Brothers movie, Amy asks, “It has a name?” and, with an eye roll in his voice, her father says, “Oh, all the best trips do.” It’s a small moment that goes far toward establishing the ways in which their father-daughter closeness takes its root in a distancing from the mother they both find alternately cold and silly.
At dinner, sharp words here and there eventually send Amy running from the table and Jeremy, the client’s stepson, follows. Jeremy is an actor, the reluctant star of a popular children’s television show who is now making his mark in Serious New York Theater. He is also pretending to be gay, due to a misunderstanding which occurred while he was playing Robert Mapplethorpe, one he failed to correct, knowing how his psychologist mother “likes to be accepting.” This detail is unimportant except to color him in with shades both soft and suggestible. Amy and Jeremy are both uncomfortable with their families. They say nothing, they kiss.
A sweet and stunted little affair ensues. They have sex in Amy’s mother’s car, parked at the beach while rain pours outside. They smoke weed and Jeremy complains that he hates acting. Amy cringes at the sight of legos and baseball sheets in the bedroom Jeremy hasn’t occupied since he was twelve. She tells her family she has gone on anti-depressants and then skinny dips with a teenager instead.
Jeremy is a perfect caricature of that hushed, fleecy boy known to anybody who has spent even a single weekend at a liberal arts college, and Christopher Abbott has the cherubic good looks to pull it all off perfectly—chewed lips and round eyes, smiling shyly. He listens and cares when she tells him about her life, about her abandoned photography, about her marriage, about how she had been happy, about how she never saw it coming, the end. Amy needs to say these words aloud so that later she can see that they aren’t the truth. He is gently enamored with her and she quickly blossoms under his sugary attentions as the summer beats on; naked together they make plans to run away, plans that quite obviously will never come to fruition. It’s the kind of talk that is only ever words and useful only as a kind of warmth, a heady gift of imaginary love. And in this way, their eventual parting helps Amy out far more than their time together ever did. When Jeremy’s mother arrives home early from a trip to the city (“Uh, there was an understudy for Patti LuPone, so, we decided not to stay. We wanted to see Patti.”) to find Amy and her son playing naked in the pool, Amy bolts. That night Jeremy rides his bike to Amy’s house, tossing rocks at her window—all of it so achingly adolescent—and she lashes out at him with an embarrassment about the entire ordeal that is understandable, if also unkind.
Amy was all fragile edges after no longer being wanted by the man she thought would be the center of her life forever. Before Jeremy, she couldn’t see that this want had never done her a single favor anyway, that it wasn’t evenreally wanting, not the kind that comes from inside your bones and that matters. Tolerance, maybe. Her memories of her marriage are memories of services performed for an important husband—giving parties and entertaining guests—and piece-by-piece it becomes clearer and clearer that this thing, which she mourned so heavily on her parents’ couch, was actually the very force that broke and stole and misloved the girl she used to be (or could have been).
At a lunch in the city, Amy wears a black suit and faces the man who left her, with a spine that is new, or healed at least. He checks his phone. He looks at her like she’s a broken toy. He says, when pressed, that the reason he ended their marriage was that he knew exactly what his life was going to be like every single day until he died if he stayed with her. He mentions this casually like it isn’t something awful, and then adds, “but we were great friends, right? That was great.” Amy sits across from him and the new resolve in her eyes is unmistakable. She looks puzzled, almost, as to how this was ever something she thought she would miss.
“It’s okay. It’s– I’m not sad. I’m not sad, I just don’t feel like seeing you. Because, I feel bad about myself when I’m with you. I feel really bad, and I always have, but I didn’t know it. I was just so used to it. And, I think, I just thought that was being alive. To always feel bad and wrong and, just, insecure, and invisible. So, thank you. Thank you for ending our marriage, David. I really mean it, because I wasn’t happy with you, and I would’ve never ended it myself.”
Here so small a victory, and, still, a victory that hit me with a force I never would have expected, watching the movie half-sleepily and suddenly exhilarated, almost clapping in my bed. This is a credit to Lynskey’s performance, but also to the script by Sarah Koskoff. Together, the two allow for an awakening in Amy that is as subtle as it is stunning, and in this way so very real. So true to the path of human growth, sputtering slowly with spinning wheels and then speeding forward all at once, starts and stops and leg flying over leg, like being powered by a force beyond the self that is, in the end, a force entirely of the self. Fumbling on colt-limbs and then racing, we find a way forward, feeling, while going, a sense of surprise. Amy unlocks her own potential simply by realizing that it’s there.
The most affecting parts of the film are a pair of scenes between Lynskey and Danner. In the first, they fight. Amy stumbles into the house drunk and breaks a sculpture that her mother has, of late, focused all of her energy into acquiring. The dynamic between these two characters is nothing revolutionary, but Lynskey and Danner manage to feel magnetic together in these small moments: the daughter feeling judged and poorly loved, the mother feeling unappreciated and ignored. So clearly two halves of a whole, but numb to it and bent on banging.
At the end of the film, Amy finds her mother crying as she sorts her jewelry box. Her father isn’t retiring after all—he never was, and Danner appears thawed just barely by the burn of this disappointment. This new Amy—her fists wrapped tight around something odd and thrilling called self-worth—can now see her mother in a way she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) before, back when she was too busy making her a villain.
Mother and daughter will go on the trip together, of course. Amy will take pictures of her mother standing beside rivers and they will, neither of them, be ignored. Symmetrical sadnesses and a strong current to wash them away, gallivanting girls.
It’s near autumn and dark outside when Amy tells Jeremy that he taught her what it was to be loved, the two of them standing close once more in a lonely recess of her parents’ house. Jeremy is wearing a jacket with no tie, so much the boy he seems to be. Sheepish there in shadows, Oberlin-bound, looking at his feet, he says to her, “that was a good thing to say.”
And he’s right.
Tess McGeer wrote the screenplay for a teen vampire comedy as her major senior project last year. Unbelievably, the degree this earned has not translated to a slew of lucrative job opportunities. It’s okay, though, because her childhood bedroom in Massachusetts is as good a place as any to re-read Judy Blume books and shop for nail polish online.