By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Films that are a combination of script and improv can often be deadly rambles, the actors blathering on, the scenes shapeless. Yet somehow writer/director Lynn Shelton has figured out a methodology that blends the confessional, natural tone of improvisation with sharply delineated characters speaking smart, well-timed dialogue in scenes that have both tension and rhythm. In this, her fourth film, Shelton cast the veteran actresses Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt to work with celebrated indie actor/writer/director Mark Duplass (co-writer/director of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, also starring in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed and Shelton’s earlier Humpday) … and the results are wonderful.
Your Sister’s Sister opens on the one-year memorial for the deceased brother of Duplass’ Jack. Jack is still grieving over the loss of his sibling, and his inappropriate reactions at the memorial cause his best friend Iris (Blunt) to suggest that he spend some reflective time at her family’s mountain cabin in the San Juan Islands in northern Washington. But when he arrives, he discovers that Iris’ sister Hannah (DeWitt) has come to the cabin as well, to work out some issues of her own. Between Hannah’s recent decision to walk out on her seven-year lesbian relationship, and Jack’s need to process his grief, they turn into drinking buddies for the night. After one too many shots of tequila, they end up in bed together. Which wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the fact that Iris, who was Jack’s brother’s girlfriend and is secretly in love with Jack, shows up to surprise Jack the following morning. And this is where we say: Complications ensue.
No maudlin melodrama, the three leads organically ebb and flow together, allegiances changing as the scenarios mutate. Jack and Iris howl over Hannah’s horrible vegan pancakes; Hannah and Jack laugh over Iris’ histories with bad dates. Jack isn’t so much the third wheel as the comedic other, desperate to keep the weekend running smooth. The more he tries to cover up his sexual liaison with Hannah, the worse it gets. An interpersonal drama, the story is offset with elements of a modern sex farce, blending and sculpting the whole into a fraught yet funny weekend amid the overcast, moody beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Rather than a script, Shelton wrote long “character bibles” for the actors which, as Shelton states, were “just there as a scaffolding, to make the actors feel there was a safety net.” With the cast and crew all living together during the brief, 10-day shooting schedule, Shelton and her actors took an ensemble approach to working out the scenes. Instead of her primary reliance on a handheld single camera as she did with Humpday, shooting predominantly in close-up, here Shelton opted for a more traditional route, using two cameras and a mix of wide camera angles, two-shots and close-ups that offered her far more cinematic choices.
But no matter the shooting technique, it’s the film’s strong story and compelling characters that makes Your Sister’s Sister such a stand-out. All three leads excel: Blunt’s Iris, fragile, needy, crawling into her sister’s bed during the middle of the night for a cuddle, juxtaposed against DeWitt’s Hannah, sharp and acerbic, hiding her vulnerability behind her wit and derision. Playing the unintended interloper, Duplass’ Jack, acutely aware of his own underachievement, is concomitantly fiercely protective of the sibling relationship. Having lost his own, he’ll be damned if he causes a rift in another.
One of the decided highlights of last January’s Sundance 2012, Your Sister’s Sister represents the best of Shelton’s work … so far. We can’t wait to see where she goes next.
Rating on a scale of 5 brother and sister acts: 4.5
Release date: June 15, 2012
Written and directed by: Lynn Shelton
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia
Running Time: 90 minutes