Nervous Laughter and Local Beauty in "Your Sister's Sister"
Real life is messy—a series of jerky rhythms and fits and starts that throw speed-bumps and hairpin turns at our inherent need for order and normalcy. And the characters in Your Sister’s Sister stumble through those messy bits of existence with an awkward fidelity that feels almost uncomfortably real.
Seattle director Lynn Shelton’s latest feature marks the first homegrown opening night feature in the Seattle International Film Festival’s history. But that historic precedent feels less revelatory than how good—and how uncompromising—the movie itself is for much of its running time.
Wags who’ve complained about the middlebrow earnestness of most of SIFF's opening night features over the years should find Your Sister’s Sister to be a bracing change of pace. It’s essentially a romantic dramedy, but one that navigates its emotional and sexual minefields with the un-self-conscious ease of an art film and a trio of winning turns from its principal cast members.
Mark Duplass (a veteran of Shelton’s previous feature, Humpday) plays Jack, a rumpled Seattleite dealing with the recent death of his brother. Jack’s best pal Iris (Emily Blunt) invites him to stay alone at her parents’ remote getaway cabin to decompress. But upon his arrival in this little paradise Jack bumps into Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’s earthy sister. Jack and Hannah tumble drunkenly into a one-night stand, and things get messy when Iris shows up unannounced.
There’s a naturalistic flow to Your Sister’s Sister that infuses the stock set-up with a breath of spontaneous life. Shelton’s characters talk a lot, but their words—and the uncomfortable pauses and moments of humorous absurdity that punctuate them—always mean something. At the movie’s beginning, Jack delivers a blunt, slightly inebriated, anguished monologue that alternately celebrates his late brother’s social adaptability and exposes a whole underbelly of resentment and outrage. The fact that he lets loose with it at a party celebrating his departed sibling flat-out stings, even as it rouses uncomfortable belly laughs.
Between his work as a director and actor over the last five years, Duplass has become an "It Boy" of indie cinema, and based on his work here, it’s easy to see why. He telegraphs the messy emotional bits underneath Jack’s surface with an utterly charming combination of caustic humor and schlubby regular-guy affability. DeWitt’s weary sensuality and native intelligence provide a nice counterpoint to Duplass’s bemused comic energy. Even Blunt, the ostensible Big Star here, delivers unaffected work that feels of an organic whole with the rest of the cast.
Your Sister’s Sister also manages to be a visually-evocative love letter to Washington state. Shelton contrasts all of the dialogue by following Jack around the placidly beautiful surroundings in long, dialogue-free shots, and Benjamin Kasulke’s cinematography captures the scenic Orcas Island locales with an unapologetically romantic eye.
While the dialogue never feels less than 100 percent natural, Shelton’s storyline does take an almost soap-opera turn at one point (whether she’s crafted a compelling emotional Chinese puzzle or a plot device straight out of a Lifetime Movie of the Week depends on the beholder, I reckon). But she ends Your Sister’s Sister with an ambiguous final shot that effectively encapsulates her characters and the sensibility behind them. Jack, Iris and Hannah don’t know where those messy emotional bits are going to take them—and neither does the audience.