Low-budget and low-key, Lynn Shelton's follow-up to her racy indie breakout, Humpday, doesn't exactly push the envelope for dramatic invention, but it does cement the fluid, intimate and poignantly human approach of her improvisational style.
The story is barebones simple. Jack (Mark Duplass) is scruffy, directionless and still grieving over the death of his brother. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who once dated his brother, arranges for him to stay at her family's cabin in the San Juan Islands. She's hoping the isolation and fresh air will help him clear his head. She's also harboring a longstanding crush. Once Jack arrives, however, he discovers that Iris' lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is there recovering from a breakup. The two confide in each other, have an impulsive roll in the hay, and struggle to deal with the consequences once Iris shows up.
In the wrong hands, Your Sister's Sister is the kind of dialogue-heavy chamber piece that might have come off as a filmed version of a stage play. Miraculously, Shelton makes her characters' jealousies, misunderstandings and confessions feel cinematic, judiciously using close-ups and reveals to enhance our understanding of their emotions and rationalizations. It's a disarming and warmly observant approach that captures the organic and spontaneous nature of her unscripted scenes. The exchanges are more than just skillfully interpreted lines on a page but rather the unprompted and openhearted interactions of real-life people connecting and reacting to one another.
The rhythm and style is similar to what John Cassavetes experimented with in the late 1960s and early '70s. But where the indie pioneer preferred to indulge in dysfunction, failure and the way relationships break apart, Shelton is drawn to the way people come together. Your Sister's Sister takes a trio of characters who have each had their families torn apart, then explores how they awkwardly attempt to form a family of their own.
Shelton has a great instinct for the fragile surface of relationships, exploring how who we are and what we think we want is informed as much by situation as history. This kind of patient observation of character can make for rich company, and all three actors bring their best. Duplass is funny and charmingly disheveled, but it's the relationship between sisters Blunt and DeWitt that shines — especially when they poke at each other's tender spots. A scene in which Hannah embarrasses Iris at dinner over past grooming habits sparks with the kind of humiliation that is sudden and true-to-life.
Throughout the picture, DeWitt is marvelous, providing a weary and brittle edge that helps to sell some of Shelton's clunkier storytelling devices. It's a reminder that we don't see enough of this terrific actress. Blunt, however, as wonderful as she is, ends up shortchanged in the character department, assigned to neurotically moon over her older sister and Duplass' Jack.
Where Your Sister's Sister stumbles is in Shelton's predictable and overly artificial approach to storytelling. After spending 45 minutes with these wonderfully real and honest characters, she manufactures a couple of contrived plot complications in order to goose the drama, and a montage sequence that can't help but feel like padding. It's a set of unfortunately artificial choices in a film that, up until that point, has been anything but. The too-tidy conclusion (it's always amazing how much a heartfelt monologue can solve) comes close to derailing the film, but the actors and a near-perfect final shot save the day.
Your Sister's Sister demonstrates that Shelton is certainly a filmmaker to watch. She brings out the best in her actors, has a finely tuned ear for the way people speak to one another and, most importantly, is not afraid to explore female relationships and sexuality in an honest and open way. Whatever this film's shortcomings, I look forward to seeing what she does next.
At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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