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‘Your Sister’s Sister’ dials down Shelton’s mumblecore tendencies

Your Sister’s Sister

Directed by Lynn Shelton

Written by Lynn Shelton

USA, 2011

Coming off the critical success of the mumblecore favorite Humpday from 2009, director and writer Lynn Shelton is back with her follow-up, Your Sister’s Sister, with frequent collaborator actor/director Mark Duplass as well as established film presences Emily Blunt and Rose-Marie DeWitt, who played the titular Rachel in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Shelton again takes a hand at using a simple plot as a framework for eliciting complex emotions from her cast of characters. In her Seattle-based film Humpday, Shelton played with the notion of modern male identities when two straight male friends decide to make a porn together for a local film festival to help test their boundaries and challenge life decisions. This time round Shelton pushes her themes further and deeper to take a candid and decidedly off-beat look at the psychology of grief in a poignant, vibrant and sometimes scattered character study laced with an improvisional edge.

Duplass plays Jack, a man who is passively aggressively trying to get over the death of his brother who used to go out with his best friend Iris, played by Emily Blunt. The film opens on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at a memorial party attended by close friends. After Jack makes a scene during a friend’s tribute speech Iris strongly suggests that Jack take some time to work things out in the solitude of her family’s cabin across the bay. While there, Jack happens upon Iris’ unsuspecting sister Hannah (in a genuinely cute meet-cute sequence) played by Rose-Marie DeWitt who is out there doing some grieving of her own after the collapse of a long-term relationship. Plot threads begin to condense when Iris shows up unexpectedly to drop in on Jack with groceries after an eventful night of drinking between Jack and Hannah.

It would be unfair to spoil some of the plot threads that develop throughout the film as each revelation helps to add a bit more layering to the characters and story. Problems in the flow of the film lay in the improvisational tone to a lot of the character introductions and situations. Charming as everyone is in this film the dialogue and situations tend to feel stilted and affected by an almost sitcom-style artifice that erodes and overwhelms any naturalism that these dedicated actors bring to the plate. The film’s power lays in the quieter moments where the characters are able to stop projecting and relay a little more about what they are feeling in the moment. Blunt and DeWitt show great confidence in their performances and are successful in their portrayal of two very loving, very different sisters who are trying to find direction at crossroads within their adult lives. Likewise, Blunt and Duplass eventually find a natural rhythm in the film when they are allowed to be a bit more playful and open in their scenes alone together. Duplass’ character Jack feels a bit pushed out to sea (almost literally) without a tether towards the end of the film but Shelton’s screenplay ever so slightly is able to bring him back into the fold of the story and offers him a chance to affect and be affected by these two women in his life.

Your Sister’s Sister tends to probe a bit deeper on a psychological level when compared to Shelton’s earlier work as the stakes are upped by a greater array of short and long term consequences faced by the characters that help to keep the narrative thoroughline on track. Interestingly enough as well, Shelton uses natural landscape and score to greater effect in this film, slightly shedding her mumblecore beginnings to find a nice middle ground in terms of character and cinematic engagement.

Gregory Ashman