Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister is one of the pleasanter surprises I’ve had this year. It was not a film I had expected to like, nor is it a type of film I am normally drawn to. Actually, it’s fairer to say that it really didn’t turn out to be the type of film I expected. What I expected was something in the nature of the work of Mark and Jay Duplass — with a lot of shaky camerawork, seemingly arbitrary zooms and even more meandering mullygrubbing. What I got was a thoughtful, complex story with a mix of intelligently used hand-held (not shaky) camerawork and beautifully composed tripod shots emphasizing the splendid — and glorious — isolation of the setting that had something of the sense of Ingmar Bergman. That last may seem heady praise, but the visuals deserve it.
The film opens with Jack (Mark Duplass in a revelatory performance) having a kind of meltdown at memorial party given on the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death. While everyone else enthuses over what a wonderful guy the brother was, Jack goes into a near tirade about his brother’s less lovely qualities. It is this outburst that causes Jack’s best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), to suggest that Jack needs some time to himself to sort his life out. To this end, she packs him off to her family’s cottage on an island off Washington state, refusing (supposedly due to a workload) to visit him there.
What Iris doesn’t know (and what Jack doesn’t expect) is that her half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has already taken over the cabin following a breakup with her longtime girlfriend. In itself, this turns into what normally would qualify as “meeting cute” — only, of course, there’s the immediate difference that Hannah is a lesbian. But the two hit it off and — over copious amounts of tequila — trade a good many confidences. With their immediate rapport, shared loneliness and the alcohol, the pair end up in bed together for some rather perfunctory sex. The problem arrives the next morning when Iris unexpectedly shows up, sending Jack into a panic that she might find out what happened. Hannah is somewhat amused and perplexed by this — much more perplexed than the audience, but maybe Hannah doesn’t go to the movies much. All this has the makings of farce, but Shelton and her cast (who improvised much of the dialogue) take it somewhere much richer — and that’s a somewhere I’ll leave to the film.
As I noted earlier, Duplass is truly a revelation here. It’s not just that he’s refreshingly against the usual male lead type. It’s that he so completely inhabits his character that you feel less like you’re watching a performance and more like you’re actually getting to know him. Nearly everything he does — including a scene where he pitches a tantrum that could have been embarrassing — feels incredibly real. Nowhere is this more evident than in what might best be described as his big scene near the film’s end. It is little short of sublime.
Some have found the film’s ending abrupt and too inconclusive, but I thought it was quite perfect. You really should see it and find out for yourself. For more on Your Sister’s Sister check out my interview with writer-director Lynn Shelton in the online edition of the Xpress. Rated R for language and some sexual content.