In an attempt to make a documentary about what it means to turn 60, reluctant filmmaker (and retired tech executive) Tracey Thomas ended up making a movie about mortality, grief, loneliness, and what it means to be an artist. Watching My First and Last Film is an unusual but singular experience, alternating between fascinating and frustrating. It’s clearly a fiercely personal journey that Thomas seems hesitant to share or open up about when she steps in front of the camera—which is surprisingly often for someone who has trouble expressing herself for longer than a few stray thoughts.
All of it seems strange because when we catch Thomas just being herself (and not being formally interviewed), it’s clear she’s someone who has always been full of life, a free-spirited music lover, and someone it would be quite easy to embrace as a friend. But the film captures her at a moment in the middle of making what is known as “The 60 Project,” during which a one-two punch of two deeply personal tragedies befall her. And while other filmmakers might have paused the movie being made, perhaps Thomas believed finishing what she started would bring her a sense of closure, however awkward the process may look to an audience.
My First and Last Film moves back and forth between Thomas doing the work—interviewing people she knows who have recently turned 60 and asking them about how significant a milestone it is—and living her life, which includes a recently rekindled romance with old boyfriend (and cinematographer) Dennis Peters, who is diagnosed with ALS in the midst of the production and dies shortly thereafter, just a year shy of his 60th birthday. Although she never says it, it’s clear that Thomas worries that Dennis was her last chance at genuine love in her life, so in addition to dealing with the other issues around being 60, she’s confronting fears that she’ll be alone for the remainder of her life.
She also makes it clear upfront that she never felt a true calling to be a filmmaker, which is an odd thing to say at the top of your first movie. I’d never considered what it would be like to watch someone who isn’t passionate about making movies do just that (although I’ve suspected it about some directors). But because she makes the confession early, it’s difficult not to look for signs of disinterest in the craft itself. Fortunately, she is always surrounded and encouraged by professionals who remind her that she can’t be passive about movie-making. Why she would capture all of these conversations on film and include them in this documentary is a bit of a mystery, but it’s hard to penalize someone for being transparent these days, so while it’s a bit of a distraction, it’s also refreshingly honest.
The interviews with acquaintances, family, scholars and likely friends of friends feature some of the best moments in My First and Last Film, as different philosophies emerge about getting older and dying. Some are terrible about confronting and discussing death, while others (including Dennis in a pre-diagnosis moment) are ready for whatever death may bring. If I was to fault the film for its choices of interview subjects, it’s that all of them seem to be in a good place financially and have retired comfortably, stating that the best thing about being this age is that they can “do what they want to do.” Must be nice.
With a running time of under 70 minutes, the film certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome. If anything, I wish the film had gone on a bit longer just to fill in some of the gaps in Thomas’ life, perhaps giving her time to collect her thoughts. As mentioned, any time she gets before the camera, she seems to freeze up or allows her thoughts to stray, which in the context of the life events we’re shown is understandable—but why include that in the movie? Oddly, the film ends with Thomas hosting a screening of the very film we’re watching, and the emotional impact the work has on her is hard to ignore. It may be the first time she fully grasps what it means to be an artist capturing the truth. And as she discovers, it may be doubly difficult to capture your own truth.
The film is available beginning Tuesday on VOD.
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