Since her popular and generally well received 2009 indie feature Humpday, director Lynn Shelton’s profile has increased enough for her to bag stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as leads alongside rising mumblecore regular Mark Duplass in her latest, Your Sister’s Sister. Those fearing that the presence of a marquee name like Blunt means this is Shelton’s attempt at making a regular Hollywood romcom won’t be encouraged by the sitcom-ready plot, but they can rest easy. Your Sister’s Sister is for the most part a mature, thoughtful dramedy that mines humour and emotion from realism rather than absurdity.
The film opens at a gathering for Tom’s one-year death anniversary, where his surviving brother Jack (Mark Duplass) is forced to de-sentimentalize the proceedings by reminding everyone that Tom was first and foremost a human being, not a saint. It’s a great, wry scene that perfectly pitches the honest tone of the film right from the get-go, not to mention the charm of Duplass’ blunt but emotionally “precarious” Jack. Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack’s best friend and Tom’s ex-girlfriend, confronts him about his apparent depression and ships him off to a weekend retreat at her family’s island cabin off the mainland (the film was shot in and around Seattle, making good use of the verdant, wet beauty of its surroundings as a placid backdrop to the tight intimacy of its three-person drama). Complications ensue when he finds Iris’s lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) there, recovering from breaking off a seven-year-long relationship. The two indulge in tequila and hasty decisions, ending up having a (very) brief sexual tryst, the aftermath of which is made even more awkward by Iris’ arrival at the cabin next morning. One needn’t try very hard to guess the direction the rest of the film is going (though Shelton does thankfully avoid turning Hannah’s homosexuality into a phase to be grown out of).
What saves the film from the seeming triviality of its plot are the remarkable performances by all three leads. Blunt, Duplass and DeWitt invest these three characters with so much personality and life that the film never leaves the realm of recognizable reality even when its story wanders into contrivance. Shelton’s naturalistic aesthetic bolsters this sense of quiet, observational verisimilitude, keeping the shots close on her actors and highlighting the endearing differences in their body language. Observe, for example, the way the two sisters hold themselves while sharing a bed, in an elegant long take that frames them as mirrored but contrasts Iris’ openness with Hannah’s reserve. Every moment speaks volumes about the lives these characters have lived (or haven’t, in the case of Jack and Hannah) with each other.
The whip-smart irritability of Hannah, the sweet and earnest fragility of Iris, and the clownish vulnerability of Jack, are played off against each other in subtle, funny ways that feel organic and earned in the moment. This is partly because of Shelton’s emphasis on improvisation, which imparts a rich unpredictability to each conversation and interaction. Even when the third act shifts into a predictable route of soap operatic revelation followed by rushed and over-easy resolution, the honesty of emotion on display keeps the film from derailing. Shelton directs her actors with assurance, making sure their improvising never wanders into aimlessness. The spontaneity of their performances is always underscored with narrative momentum (even to a fault, as in the final act). As a result, the wonderful chemistry between Duplass, Blunt and DeWitt easily carries both the drama and the comedy. There is a genuine sweetness to their shared plight and its resolution that makes it difficult to begrudge the film’s larger flaws.
With the banal, overly CGI-slathered 200-million-plus-dollar blockbuster in the ascendant as the major ‘product’ of the North American film industry (which is, I might add, still producing a lot of good movies), it’s rejuvenating to see a low-key, independent release like Your Sister’s Sister showcasing the worth of small scale, intimate stories. I’m all for blockbusters when they’re good, but more often than not the bullying marketing campaigns of vapid big-budget films push smaller films out of the spotlight and into pop cultural oblivion. Your Sister’s Sister may not be an instant classic, but it’s well worth watching, and it deserves a chance alongside its bigger, flashier summer companions.
YOUR SISTER’S SISTER
USA 2011. Director: Lynn Shelton
Cast: Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt
Colour. 90 mins.