Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Directed by Lynn Shelton


I’ve now seen Your Sister’s Sister three times.  It’s one of those movies that I’m certain isn’t as good as I think it is, and maybe that sort of odd confidence made me more critical of the film this time around.  Still, I love it.  It’s one of those heavily improvised films like other Lynn Shelton films or like a Duplass Brothers’ movie.

Mark Duplass, along with Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt, stars in this movie.  He has this kind of manic but occasionally off-putting energy that fits a movie like this.  Duplass, I get the sense, loves to play with a scene.  His movies are all over the place, sometimes good and bad, but his performances are similarly wild.  In a heavily improvised movie such as this one, a lot of the magic comes from being present, in the moment.  The humor comes from certain expressions you might not be able to script, and while this may lead to an underwhelming picture as a whole, it creates electric moments, at last if you buy the actors’ chemistry.  And I did.  I do.

Your Sister’s Sister deals with how messy love and affection can be.  The characters are not discernibly different by the end, though their circumstances are.  This seems to be the case with a lot of improvised/mumblecore films (including ones directed by Shelton, Duplass, Swanberg, etc.).  They hit the familiar beats and shine in the moment, where the improvisation creates impossible to script moments, but the overall arc is almost painfully mundane.

Still I don’t care.  I love this movie.

It’s heartwarming, that’s for sure.  Jack (Duplass) is a down on his luck, miserable man who clings to his own misery like a Tidal subscription with too many hoops to jump through to cancel.  His brother has been dead for a year, and Jack still doesn’t know how to deal with it.  When his best friend, Iris (Blunt), tells him she has a plan, he’s ready to listen, ready to surrender.  Even just this step, the first step towards recovery, feels like a bit of a leap.  Jack’s change from a surly drunk to a hopeful, willful participant in his own well-being happens is his character’s arc, but it happens in the first couple of scenes of the movie.

Iris sends Jack to stay alone at her parents’ lakeside cabin.  When he gets there, Iris’ sister Hannah (Dewitt) is there too, dealing with a painful breakup.  Hannah and Jack drink together and vent together, and when he makes a proposition that they sleep together, made only from behind the protection of their circumstance (he a straight male, she a lesbian), she accepts.  They do, and then the next morning comes and Iris surprises them with a visit.

Immediately, Jack is eager to keep Iris from knowing that he and her sister slept together, but Hannah doesn’t understand his fears.  If this feels highly melodramatic, that’s because it is.  You can only care about their plight if you care about them, and again, I did, but not everyone will.

I like Mark Duplass as an actor because I like him.  He’s always something resembling the same messy-haired, boyish character, whether in his own movies or someone else’s.  He’s confident but occasionally sullen and often irrational or distant.  His bet roles explore the edge that all his characters seem to have.  They are unhappy because they can’t let themselves be happy, and Your Sister’s Sister is all about the necessary growth a character like Jack needs and that Duplass’ characters didn’t get in movies like The Puffy Chair or The One I Love.

Over the course of the weekend in the cabin, the characters remain mostly the same, but the audience becomes more familiar with them.  We watch the way the sisters clash and show affection, and we learn definitively that Jack and Iris long for each other, even while the other doesn’t know.  The character learning all this alongside the audience is Hannah, ostensibly the third lead in a three person film.

Eventually Iris learns that her sister and Jack slept together, and Jack figures out that Hannah poked holes in the condom they used, as part of her eagerness to have a child.  In the third act, after the ‘dark night of the soul,’ Jack leaves and bikes around Seattle in an odd montage.  His departure leaves the two sisters to bridge the gap between them and become friends once again.

It’s a very long montage, but it’s length is meant to show the effects of time.  Your melodramatic problems don’t matter the longer after they take place.  Or maybe Shelton just didn’t have an effective plot point to drop in and solve the trio’s issues.  Nothing changes over this montage other than that more time passes, but I think that’s an effective way of looking at life and our problems.

That being said, I’m a huge fan of this movie, so I’m likely giving it the benefit of the doubt.  I’m a sucker for these actors and these kinds of stories, but the only other Shelton film I’ve seen, Touchy Feely, I found hard to watch.  And that’s probably just the nature of films as improvised and performance driven as these two.  Sometimes they hit, sometimes they don’t, and often there is nothing to fall back on.

A film like Your Sister’s Sister makes the filmmaking process seem almost easy.  You just grab a few actors, a couple cameras, a sound guy and one location.  A film like Touchy Feely reminds you how difficult it is to create a cohesive narrative without a concrete script.  Or maybe it’s something else.

This movie is lean, with just the three performers outside of an early party scene that helps set the tone.  It might work better as a short film, but the story never overstays its welcome.

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