In theory, the prospect of Your Sister's Sister, a romantic drama that concerns a love triangle between a smart-ass thirtysomething white guy, his gorgeous best friend, and her rather comely lesbian sister, doesn't inspire much confidence. One can assume, quite reasonably in an era in which expressing even rudimentary human sentiment appears to have been outlawed in 90 percent of American films, that this premise will be presented as a shrill fantasy with an accompanying level of detached sarcasm to tell audiences that it doesn't matter if nothing the characters say or do makes a modicum of sense.
That was certainly the tack that writer-director Lynn Shelton took with Humpday, an absurd exercise meant to implicitly acknowledge just how silly, homophobic, and unenlightened all American white guys are. But Your Sister's Sister marks a considerable leap forward for the director, as it marries the sweetness that she displayed in We Go Way Back to a newfound level of storytelling confidence and empathy. Shelton transcends a contrived sitcom presence to create one of most believable and moving romantic dramas in years.
Shelton's early films loosely fit into the mumblecore movement and, like Mark and Jay Duplass, she's beginning to find a balance between the benefits of that genre, which pointedly deemphasize plot in favor of character, with the advantages of a conventional three-act narrative that enriches the character moments by affording them direction, shape, and context. Every scene in Your Sister's Sister is longer than more conventional films accustom you to expect, which allows the actors to establish convincing behavioral rhythms, but it's still crisply paced, and has been blocked with a refreshing attention to detail that doesn't compromise the illusion of spontaneity.
It's also beautifully acted. As Jack, the aforementioned smart-ass who's grappling with the one-year anniversary of his brother's death, Mark Duplass, who's often been an amusing on-screen presence, gives his first full performance, revealing Jack's frequently waffling heartbreak, self-loathing, hopelessness, and occasional private amusements with a fleetness that's endearing. As Hannah, Rosemarie DeWitt is playing the odd man out, the woman who fled to her father's cabin to recover from heartbreak only to be stuck watching as a new romance blossoms in front of her. It's a tricky role, particularly after a twist in the third act, and one that could easily slip into a redundantly brittle routine, but DeWitt, as she did in Rachel Getting Married, allows you to see the panic underneath the prickly self-preservation.
But Emily Blunt is the revelation as Iris. Blunt has given clever, stylish performances in the past, particularly in The Devil Wears Prada, but she's never been this emotionally bare and stripped of artifice. Iris wants something very simple (Jack), but as the ex of Jack's brother, she's eaten up with guilt and longing, and Blunt hits some subtle, truthful notes with her voice that allow us to grasp this intuitively with little handwringing. With Jack, Iris speaks in the lush, suggestive tone of an invitingly adventurous confidant, but with Hanna she vocally shrinks a bit, regresses somewhat to a more vulnerable pleading state indicative of the past pain her and her sister share.
Your Sister's Sister would be a wonderful surprise if it was simply a perceptive portrait of romantic yearning, but the end reveals that Shelton is up to something quietly subversive in the vein of Gregg Araki's Splendor. Shelton is pleading for a revision to the idea that still dominates of preserving the classic nuclear family at all logical and emotional costs. Jack, Hannah, and Iris would appear to be decent, intelligent, capable people, but they're all crippled by the notion of what's socially "right" or, more truthfully, conventional, a handicap from which they miraculously recover in the bracing ending. Your Sister's Sister is ultimately an ode to unadorned compassion, which, sadly, nearly qualifies it as radical.
IMAGE / SOUND:
MPI Media Group has transferred Your Sister's Sister with a care that's distinguishable for a low-budget film. The film is visually characterized by a variety of earthy colors ranging from browns for the cabin that serves as the primary setting to the vivid greens and blues that illuminate the painterly exterior shots. This transfer boasts bold and vibrant color detail, and the sound, which is particularly amazing for a film shot in a run-and-gun fashion, is rich and textured, allowing one to fully pick up on the vocal subtleties that propel the narrative.
Thankfully eschewing any tediously superfluous advertisements masquerading as documentaries, this disc includes two commentaries that range from wonderful to pretty good. The commentary with writer-director Lynn Shelton and actor Mark Duplass is a lively and charming conversation between the collaborators that gives one a good idea of the freedoms and perils of making low-budget, partially improvised movies. Duplass, who is, of course, a filmmaker himself, memorably likens the process of editing films that have been shot in this fashion to "editing live sports," in that you're often wondering if you're picking up the right pieces to coherently telegraph the actions. This infectious commentary is instructive for aspiring filmmakers who might watch this film and be seduced into thinking the process is one brief painless party. The second commentary, featuring Shelton, gaffer Jeremy Mackie, cinematography Benjamin Kasulke, composer Vinny Smith, and production designer John Lavin, is a party unto itself, and unsurprisingly features quite a bit of people speaking over one another given the amount of participants. It's enjoyable, but inessential and basically redundant of the information covered in the first session. Also included is the theatrical trailer.
Lynn Shelton's finest film to date is a moving and bracingly romantic refute to the pressures imposed by conventional notions of emotional fulfillment.