There are many pleasures to be had in watching Your Sister's Sister, the fourth feature by writer/director Lynn Shelton (We Go Way Back, My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday), one of the great highlights of Tribeca 2012. For example, there is the nuanced and lived-in feel of the performances; the way each scene is meticulously mined for maximum comic/dramatic value; and the burnished cinematography that makes great use of the overcast atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest to envelop everything we see in its moody embrace. But beyond all this, there is the great pleasure of seeing Shelton so beautifully build and expand on her already impressive achievements, delivering (as always) the laughs that come from her characters being placed in rather uncomfortable situations, but adding an emotional weight that enhances both the comedic and serious moments to brilliant effect.
Shelton's two previous films My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday focused on male friendship and rivalry, and how this can often descend into a mano-a-mano battle of wills, each side loath to back down from whatever emotional position they choose to assume. Such a rivalry forms the backbone of Your Sister's Sister, but there are two significant differences. First, the relationship is between that of brothers, which serves to intensify this sort of rivalry even further, due to the emotional and familial bond that comes into play. But most importantly, this relationship has already occurred offscreen before the film begins, and is already at an end. This is because one of the brothers had been dead for a year as the action commences; we are first introduced to the surviving sibling, Jack (Mark Duplass), brooding in a corner as a death anniversary gathering is happening, where the participants share their memories of Jack's brother Tom. After Al (Mike Birbiglia) shares a fond memory of a night at the movies with Tom watching Hotel Rwanda, an inebriated and agitated Jack dumps cold water on the proceedings by giving a toast suggesting that Tom wasn't quite the saintly figure eulogized by his friends. As one can imagine, this act effectively ends the celebration, bringing Tom's friends down to Jack's own depressed level.
This proves to be one breach of decorum too many for Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack's best friend and an ex-girlfriend of Tom's. She stages an intervention with Jack after the party, prescribing a period of exile at her family's cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Iris conceives this isolation for Jack as emotional rehab, to shake him out the aimless, depressive slackerdom he has indulged in during the year following his brother's death. With literally nothing else better to do, Jack accedes to Iris' demands, biking out to the cabin. However, this planned solitude is not to be, as Jack unexpectedly comes upon Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) taking up residence there. (Even a simple set-up such as this plays out in a hilariously awkward and nicely staged scene; Shelton misses few opportunities to humorously reveal character.) Hannah is also using the cabin as a refuge from her own emotional turmoil, having just ended a seven-year lesbian relationship, drowning her sorrows that night in a bottle of tequila. That tequila is the catalyst for an ill-advised (and also hilariously awkward) sexual encounter between the two, and a completed situation that becomes even more so when Iris decides to join Jack at the cabin, unaware that her sister is also there. This sets into motion a chain of consequences that reveals connections between the three (as well as their links to the deceased Tom), in which hidden motives and desires, long suppressed, rise to the surface.
Shelton's usual method of making her films involves extensive work with the actors in which they fully collaborate with the director in creating their characters, inventing backstories, and using on-set improvisation to flesh out interactions between them, resulting in often startling and unexpected moments. One great example is one scene in which Hanna tells an embarrassing "bush story" about Iris. (To clarify, the particular bush involved is not the horticultural kind.) Iris gets revenge on Hannah for telling this story in front of Jack by rather cruelly causing Hannah to unwittingly breach her vegan diet. As can be expected, all this results in a lot of talk, and definitely much of this film, as well as her others, is very dialog-driven. But that is not all there is to it, although there is great dialog here; Shelton doesn't neglect dynamic staging, and she clearly has thought much more about composition and showing the relationship between her characters and their setting. I've already mentioned the cinematography, and again I'd like to highlight the great contribution of cameraman Benjamin Kasulke, whom Shelton has worked with on two other films, who provides rich visual texture here.
The performance work by all three principal actors is stellar. Mark Duplass (no slouch as a director himself, along with his brother Jay) has played similar characters in other films, but here he lends a sense of melancholy that is bubbling just under the surface, which leads to an outpouring of emotion at the end of the film that is quite emotionally moving. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt are never less than convincing as the siblings who form a female counterpart, perhaps, to the brothers who have been separated by death. Their emotional trajectory eventually takes center stage, pushing the film out of its light comedic territory into something weightier, though never humorless or overly ponderous.
Your Sister's Sister screens April 19, 6pm at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, April 22, 9pm at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea, and April 25, 11:30am at AMC Loews Village 7. To purchase tickets, visit the Tribeca Film Festival website.