Seattle filmmaker SJ Chiro spent nine years making her first feature, Lane 1974, which debuted at SXSW and will play to eager audiences at the Seattle International Film Festival. It's a beautiful coming-of-age period piece, full of meticulous details and a firmly rooted 1970s Northern California aesthetic. Like Captain Fantastic, a SIFF favorite from 2016, the plot deals with an "alternative" family subject to the whims and principles of an idealistic parent. But unlike Captain Fantastic, which Chiro described as "a beautiful fairy tale," Lane 1974 embraces the unpleasant reality.
Captain Fantastic certainly explored the negative aspects of freewheeling, intellectual hippiedom, but Lane 1974 more realistically captures the way in which unusual and high-minded parenting can be controlling and destructive. This realism comes from two sources: Clane Hayward's memoir, The Hypocrisy of Disco, and the eerily similar childhood experiences of writer and director Chiro.
Chiro said: "I was digging back to a specific period of time and a specific place. It just so happened that Clane Hayward and I grew up literally in the same county, in the same small towns. Our lives were very parallel. I related strongly to her feeling of aloneness. Out in the country, there's nothing around. You're stuck there."
The film uses lines from Hayward's memoir (a particularly memorable one said by the mother to her daughter: "I want you to be Cleopatra, but you insist on being Minnie Mouse"), but it also takes scenes directly from Chiro's life. Chiro described the amalgam: "It was too hard to tell my own story. It was too amorphous. It was too huge to get my mind around. But when I read Clane's book, I could see it. It was just easier to talk about my own experience through somebody else."
Lane 1974 depicts not only the discomfort of being outsiders—like when Chiro's family would get stares as they walked down the street—but also the tangible dangers, from exposure to the outdoors to the threat of arrest, all while basking in the atmospheric California light. Again, this mirrors Chiro's own life.
She told me about her experiences living on two communes, bouncing back and forth between divorced parents, living with an unusual degree of uncertainty. "No running water, no electricity. This is part of the deal—you don't want to be a part of contributing to PG&E, which contributes to the war machine. They went to these pieces of land and built their own houses. The houses were not up to code. So they brought bulldozers in to communes next door to us and bulldozed people's homes. It was violent.
"It felt very dangerous, especially to a kid. Parents would get hauled off to jail. As a child, you feel so helpless. You can't protect your parents, and they're doing things that are illegal—like smoking pot. I remember how persecuted hippies were for smoking pot. It was a big deal, and people went to jail for a long time for having a joint. Obviously if you're a black person, you've known this for a long time. It's not fair. And there are certain communities that are really targeted."
The fear and helplessness that Chiro felt is mirrored in the portrayal of the film's 13-year-old lead, played by local actor Sophia Mitri Schloss. She carries the plot with grace, frustration, ferocity, and reserve—and Chiro hopes that Schloss will win an award for her work. Chiro gushed: "She's amazing. She's magical. She's incredible. She's exactly the kind of actress I love to work with. She wants to research, she's interested, she's lively and bright. She wanted to hear the history and wanted to be referred to books that she could look at. When I went to her house for the first time to read through a few scenes with her, she gets out her color-coded binder. Amazing."
Lane 1974 is one of two locally produced feature films playing at SIFF this year, and Chiro and I wrapped up our conversation by lamenting the impending loss of Washington State's film incentive program. Chiro had a plea: "The great economic boom that is happening in Seattle should really filter into the arts in a way that it is not right now—and specifically into the film scene, because there are so many talented people. This is a place of innovation and money—that should be going to an influential and powerful medium like film."