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You Were Just Here - Full Synopsis

A successful small business owner working in the event planning industry, Vanessa’s life takes an unexpected and devastating turn after losing her father, Sam, to pancreatic cancer. Descending into alcoholism as a coping mechanism, Vanessa spends her days “playing pretend” at work and after hours in mourning, moping about the house and reliving memories of her and Sam while looking through old photos. She also continues her text thread with her father, regularly taking photos of things Sam used to like and sending them to him, as well as filling him in on her life. On the flip side, she continues to ignore texts and calls from everyone else and even deactivates her social media.


One day, Vanessa comes across a handwritten itinerary, penned by Sam while sifting further through his personal affects. It plots out a cross country train trip to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington, Michigan. While she doesn’t know what the significance of the cities and landmarks are, she realizes they are all train-related. Remembering what a huge railfan Sam was, Vanessa is lost in a flashback, where her relationship with Sam is seen for the first time. Snapping back to reality, she has an emotional breakdown, pulling Sam’s urn close to her and passing out. A few days later, Vanessa is reminded of the itinerary while grabbing her purse from another room. Locked in a stare down with the piece of paper, she decides to take action and travel by train across the country with Sam’s urn in tow…on a rope because, as Vanessa states, “It makes it easier to not lose him.”


Vanessa is determined to follow the itinerary to a tee, despite having a terrible sense of direction and loathing anything related to newer technology, hence using a paper train ticket instead of an electronic one and relying on Sam’s itinerary instead of a map/traveling app. Settling into her train journey, another flashback occurs, showcasing Sam’s hair trigger temper and the oftentimes awkward encounters Vanessa experiences when with her father out in public. Vanessa’s train journey is interrupted by the presence of TH, a nonchalant, inquisitive, and all around happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Ignoring Vanessa’s “do not disturb” activity of reading a book, he makes himself comfortable and begins asking about the urn on the rope. To her chagrin, Vanessa decides to engage with the oblivious stranger.


She learns that he’s enroute to his sister’s graduation from Dartmouth University. Agreeing to TJ’s offer to buy her a drink, the two disembark in New Mexico and find themselves at a dive bar, drinking and having an almost romantic interlude on the dance floor. Arriving at a motel for the night, the two get rooms next to each other, where they experience their first (drunken) kiss. Coming to her senses, Vanessa breaks the moment and excuses herself for the night, confusing TJ. The next morning, the two are waiting for their respective trains, with Vanessa being aloof and moody. With the train fast approaching, Vanessa’s anxiety builds, causing her to blurt out that she’s never left California, has no idea what she’s doing and is terrible at asking for help. She offers for TJ to join her on the trip (or not) and instantly regrets the moment of vulnerability. TJ agrees and the two resume the rest of the cross-country train trip together.


Their next stop is Durango, Colorado, where they visit the D&SNG Railroad Museum, where we flashback to the younger version of Sam for the first time. We see that – despite Vanessa declaring that Sam would never live where there was snow – Sam did, in fact, work for a time in the area. Back on the train, Vanessa and TJ play “20 questions,” getting to know a bit more about each other. Vanessa shares her mother, Reina, passed from an aneurysm several years ago and that it was just her and Sam ever since. TJ shares that he’s the black sheep of the family and while his parents are well off financially, he struck his own course. He jokes that his little sister, Cynthia, is a “rock star” who helps to keep his parents’ expectations of him low by comparison. Unbeknownst to Vanessa, TJ has been chronicling their trip in a Word doc on his laptop. When asked about his online activities, TJ lies, explaining that he’s keeping his sister up to date on his travels. This is the first time we see TJ feel guilty about lying to Vanessa.


Disembarking at a train station in Seattle, Washington, Vanessa is floored to recognize the inside of the beautiful lobby as the place where her father proposed to her mother. We see the intimate moment between Sam and Reina take place in a flashback. Next stop is the Big Fill Loop Trail inside the Golden Spike National Historic Park in Corrinne, Utah. TJ and Vanessa hike the Big Fill Loop Trail with a tourist group, where we flashback to young Sam hiking the same trail back in the ‘80s and meeting Claire, a beautiful young woman traveling with college friends. Sam’s friends caution the newly engaged man to be careful. The gang heads to the park’s movie theater, where they watch the 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery. With Claire and her friends also in the same theater, Sam once again ignores his friends’ warnings and takes a seat next to Claire, establishing a budding romance.


Arriving in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Vanessa and TJ tour the downtown area, coming across a “Rage Room,” where people pay to smash various objects. The two go to town obliterating the objects. During the melee, Vanessa has a full-on emotional breakdown, to the surprise of TJ, who quickly comforts her. Later, TJ tries to cheer Vanessa up by pointing to a necklace with a vial in a storefront window, commenting that it would be great to put some of Sam’s ashes inside it as a keepsake before scattering them at sea. Vanessa barely acknowledges it. Flashing back to 1983, we find Sam in a photo booth in Arkadelphia, fuming to his wife, Reina (pregnant with Vanessa back in California) about a racist incident at work, involving a publicly placed noose on the premises. During the exchange, we see the love and concern Reina has for her husband being a Black man in America. Being of Filipino heritage, she can’t quite relate but knows she wants him to come home. Not wanting to upset his pregnant wife further, Sam calms down and says he’ll be homebound soon. He predicts that if he’s ever back in the area, he’ll walk up and piss on the building of his former employer.


Back in present-day Arkadelphia, TJ tries to have a heart-to-heart with Vanessa that evening. Evading the concern, Vanessa asks TJ to use her phone to take a picture of her and Sam’s urn instead. When she suddenly opens up about her feelings, TJ distractedly puts Vanessa’s phone in his pocket. After their exchange, the two head back to their motel rooms for the night. While in the shower in her room, which is connected by a door to TJ’s, he remembers he has her phone and decides to check it. He comes across scores of missed calls and texts. Reading through Vanessa’s texts, he realizes her friends and family have no idea where she is and are concerned. He also comes across the text thread with Sam, which showcases a rage text she sent before embarking on the train trip. Scrolling back, TJ unveils the shocking truth about Sam, completely putting Vanessa’s behavior into perspective: Sam had another family.


In a flashback, we see Vanessa digging through bins containing paperwork and documents. She comes across handwritten letters from the ‘80s, namely from Claire. There is a photo of Claire and Richard, her son with Sam. He is a few years younger than Vanessa. There is a flashback to Sam reading Claire’s last letter with tears in his eyes. As he tearfully pens his last letter to her, we see Claire and Richard being evicted from the home Sam had been paying for them. Sam’s apologetic words for choosing Reina and Vanessa over her and Richard, play as a voice-over during the scene. The landlord, Mark Mayhew, watches sadly as Claire and Richard get into their packed car. They share one last look before Claire pulls out and gets hit by a truck. Both Claire and Richard are killed instantly.


Stunned, Vanessa comes across another batch of letters from the landlord’s son, Kevin, who angrily recounts in flashbacks of his father’s decline in mental health and tragic passing after witnessing the deaths of Claire and Richard, which Mark Mayhew blamed himself for. Kevin tells Sam to stop sending money and that he is to blame for what happened to his father and their family. Back in the present day, TJ manages to return Vanessa’s phone to her room before she comes out of the shower and pretends to know nothing. Feeling a range of emotions, including guilt, TJ kisses Vanessa for a second time but this experience is deeper and more meaningful. Similar to their first kiss, it’s now TJ’s turn to break the moment and wish Vanessa a good night since they have to be up early to catch the next train to Michigan City, Indiana.


Now in Indiana, TJ’s mood has shifted to irritated and exasperated, which confuses Vanessa, as they realize the last leg of Sam’s handwritten itinerary isn’t accurate and no trains run from Michigan City to Ludington. The two get into an argument as a result. Overcome with emotions, TJ blurts out that he knows about Sam’s other family and expresses disappointment that Vanessa is going out of her way to idolize someone who would keep such a huge lie. After slapping TJ, Vanessa leaves. Renting a car, she makes her way to her final destination, while TJ gets on a train to attempt to make it to his sister, Cynthia’s, graduation.


Vanessa arrives to the lighthouse and makes her way to the seawall, where she climbs down onto one of the boulders and has a heart-to-heart with Sam. Turning away to shield herself from a spray of water, she sees “S + C” in a heart inscribed onto the seawall. In a flashback, we see Claire and Sam looking at the initials and embracing each other. Vanessa realizes Sam’s life was more complicated and filled with grief and loss than she initially knew. After apologizing out loud to Sam for being mad at him, she reaches into her backpack to retrieve a tissue, where she comes upon the necklace with vial that TJ had shown her back in Arkansas. Reading TJ’s handwritten note about acceptance of those we love, she puts some of Sam’s ashes into the necklace and after securing it around her neck, proceeds to scatter Sam’s ashes into the water. Vanessa then dives off the boulder and floats serenely among her father’s ashes in the water. She is unaware that a drone is hovering in the sky nearby. She eventually swims back to shore, gathers her things and heads back to life in California.


One month later, Vanessa appears healthier, and is driving to a client’s event. Turning on the radio, she listens to her favorite radio program, “Our Nation’s Narratives.” The last story describes a girl, an urn, and a train, as told by a man who was traveling with her and happens to be a journalist. Realizing TJ is being interviewed on the program about her trip, Vanessa is initially upset but continues to listen to the interview. Pre-recorded 2 weeks prior, we see TJ being interviewed by the host, Irene Glassner. TJ reveals that he had gone to the lighthouse but couldn’t find Vanessa. Instead, he meets a drone operator, Morris, and engages in conversation. Morris becomes alarmed when he sees a woman jump into the water on his drone monitor. Realizing it's Vanessa, TJ improvs, explaining that he’s her boyfriend and that she’s okay. Luckily, Morris believes him and doesn’t call the police. They watch as Vanessa swims safely back to shore.


Vanessa listens to TJ explain how he knew he betrayed Vanessa but wanted to see her to make sure she was okay. He goes on to detail that he did get to watch Cynthia graduate via Facetime, with Cyntia taking her phone onto the stage with her and showing TJ the crowd. The siblings exchange a sweet moment over the phone. Irene finds it hard to believe that TJ doesn’t know how to get in touch with Vanessa after traveling together for so long but TJ explains the way things ended was unexpected and they never thought to exchange contact information while in the thick of the trip and that it may not make sense to anyone else but it did for them. When Irene Glassner asks why TJ risked so much, he admits on national radio that he’s fallen in love with Vanessa. Surprised, Vanessa reaches her destination and goes into work mode.


Coming home late that night, her best friend, Simone, calls and asks if Vanessa had listened to today’s episode of “Our Nation’s Narratives,” which prompts her to reveal that TJ reached out to Simone and a few of Vanessa’s other friends to tell them what she was doing and that she was okay. This upsets Vanessa. Simone talks her down, sharing that what TJ did was admirable and out of love. Conflicted, Vanessa spends the next several days debating whether or not to contact TJ using the number given to her by Simone.


While in her office, which used to be Sam’s office, Vanessa looks at the now empty urn and retrieves the necklace and rereads TJ’s note. Securing the necklace around her neck, she calls TJ, asking if proclaiming his love on national radio was really a good decision, to which TJ replies, “Apparently, it was because you’re calling me.” The two share a laugh.

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