The couple at the center of Daniel Hymanson’s documentary “So Late So Soon” often compare themselves to a mouse and an alligator. The characterization feels apt for Jackie and Don Seiden, two aging artists who’ve occupied a multicolored Victorian home in Chicago for decades. Jackie scurries around, dancing, dusting, and decorating their house with found objects from Furbies to vintage suitcases — all in pastel hues of pink, purple, blue, or yellow. Don, meanwhile, sits in his chair as he reads and sketches, like an alligator, he says, waiting “for things to pass me by.” He couldn’t be more out of place in Jackie’s candy-colored wonderland, and it’s this opposition that seems to fuel their fascination with one another, as well as their somewhat frequent feuds, as they navigate the ups and downs of aging, artistic creation, and long-term cohabitation.
Hymanson grew up with Jackie and Don, becoming friends with them after taking Jackie’s youth art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Debut feature “So Late So Soon” is an extension of several of his short film projects centering on Jackie, the first of which he made when he was 15. He cites “Charleen” — Ross McElwee’s extremely subjective, observational portrait of his friend and poetry teacher — as an influence on his work, and like that film, “So Late” is inspired by the impactful connections we make with people outside our family or age group. It’s clear he’s developed a level of trust and comfort with Jackie and Don that lets him fade into the background as he shoots with his handheld camera. Every so often, however, Jackie will address Hymanson directly, or he’ll pop into the reflection of a bathroom mirror, echoing the directorial interjections McElwee was known for, and reminding us that someone else is in there.
Though we meet the Seidens later in life, Hymanson and editor Isidore Bethel slowly introduce bits of Don and Jackie’s past into the picture, painting a fuller portrait of their lives and highlighting their slow decay by way of comparison. Jackie is shown coming to terms with the limitations of her 78-year-old body, crying out in pain as she bemoans her state. “I’m just broken-hearted,” she says. “Me of all people: the whirling dervish.” Hymanson then cuts to Super 8 footage of Jackie dancing on roller skates in underwear and a bandeau bra top before transitioning to tap shoes. She’s barely touching the ground as she moves like no one is watching, full of life and a seemingly inexhaustible energy. This footage, especially compared with the subsequent shot of Jackie in fetal position on her couch, makes you want to get up and move your body while you still can.
Jackie’s honesty about the aging process is refreshing. Even as an artist who’s always been interested in disintegration, she says, it’s hard for her to find the beauty in watching her own body fall apart. Still, she doesn’t submit easily to old age, which she describes as a “really dirty trick.” Her persona seems to be fully intact as she “power-dances” to Sade in her living room, skips dessert at lunch (because she ate ice cream and fudge for breakfast), and continues her eccentric art projects around the house with materials ranging from rocks to dental floss.
While Don is certainly a quieter presence in the house (his laconic nature can get on Jackie’s nerves), his interior world is highlighted through Hymanson’s careful camerawork, which observes him talking to the quirky portraits he sketches in his notebook, animating each one with its own personality. Through archival news footage, we’re introduced to Don’s more substantial artistic pursuits in sculpture, which are inspired by frequent visits to the zoo and a love of the rhinoceros. “I wished I had a rhino of my own to stare at,” he tells the local Chicago news station. He sees his life-size sculpture of the animal that emerged from this desire as a self-portrait: “The rhinoceros is endangered, but a survivor.”
Jackie and Don perform a dance that’s probably familiar to most couples — how to strike the balance between individuality and separatism? Placid shots of Jackie playing jazz piano while Don reads in the living room suggest domestic bliss, but neither of them shy away from expressing their displeasure when they feel too separate from one another. Don feels “left out” when Jackie semi-lucidly cries for “Mama, daddy, Mark, somebody” to help her when she’s in pain. Jackie feels slighted when Don wants to buy his own toothpaste. At a dinner party she spiritedly tells the story of how Don “choked” at the altar, having to step outside to think it over before ultimately saying “I do.” While she laughs about it now, it’s clear that the incident still bothers her, as does the fact that he didn’t want to have children with her. “You were tired of women, so you would have me. The basic insult,” she sighs during a fight toward the end of the film.
Ultimately, Don, who’s about ten years Jackie’s senior, has a serious fall, forcing him to spend time at a rehabilitation center. The film’s most poignant moment comes when Hymenson plays a voice message from Don over footage of their empty, barely lit house, emphasizing just how desolate it feels without him. “I don’t miss the television and I don’t miss the computer, and I don’t miss my chair even. But I miss you.” It’s the kind of sentiment, clichéd as it may be, that’s sometimes necessary after a fight (or 50 years of them).
Shooting for the film wrapped in 2017, and Don passed away in 2019. Jackie has moved to a senior living complex and is selling the house. Even without knowing this, the film feels like a tribute, and an eventual goodbye — to two extraordinarily unique people, their unconventional home, and their truly remarkable way of life.
“So Late So Soon” is now playing theatrically in Chicago from Oscilloscope Laboratories. It will open in New York on December 9 with a national rollout to follow.