June 13, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Your Sister's Sister

by Vadim Rizov

Your Sister's Sister

In writer-director Lynn Shelton's Humpday, Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard talk themselves into a dare requiring endless verbal finesse and hedging to back out of. Shelton's Your Sister's Sister reverses the structure: first comes the act, then the discussions. Sent to recover from a year of mourning for his late brother at best friend Iris' (Emily Blunt) isolated family house, Jack (Duplass again) finds Iris' lesbian half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) already there for a solitary retreat to work through the recent end of a seven-year relationship. A late-night tequila session leads to an ill-advised hook-up, whose ramifications at first seem within the boundaries of the merely temporarily uncomfortable. Surprisingly and satisfyingly plotty, Your Sister's Sister slowly introduces information creating a thornier dilemma whose not-to-be-spoiled implications threaten Jack and Iris' friendship and—more seriously—the two women's ability to ever talk again.

Shelton's setpieces alternate playful conversational evasions and ineloquent emotional explosions. The verbose fumbling shares a lot in common with Andrew Bujalski's work, notably Mutual Appreciation, which also ends with a group hug. That finale was overly satirical (the ritualized reconciliation clearly solved nothing), but Sister's "open-ended" final embrace lets everyone off the hook. Dramatically, this film follows Humpday's two protagonists' lead in backing away from potentially scarring follow-through.

Your Sister's Sister

The first two acts are strong enough to cover for the near-absence of a third. Opening audio snatches heard under black-screen credits perfectly recreate a small, gathering-of-thirtysomething-friends-with-white-wine low-key party's atmosphere: people being quizzed about how long they've been with their significant other, time-filling introductions ("I'm friends with Jack"), an aimless anecdote about "a frying pan with cheese in it." Glowering at the back of this din, Jack interrupts a remembrance of how his late sibling was inspired by Hotel Rwanda to undertake community service by recalling another important movie milestone years before: seeing Revenge of the Nerds taught his brother nice guys prosper more than over bullies, motivating a mercenary change of attitude.

"I'm not calling my brother a dick," he unconvincingly whimpers before abruptly leaving the room to glare at a hallway. Aware that he can't apply for a job or get on with his life in this condition, Jack follows Iris' command to bike out of Seattle and take a ferry to the isolated San Juan Islands to brood the bitterness out of his system. Iris' unexpected arrival leaves Jack rushing out of bed to cover up what happened. Hannah remains ambivalent about concealing anything from her beloved sister. Like the two male leads in Humpday, Iris and Hannah have no closed off conversational areas when they're catching up in bed. Blunt and DeWitt clearly adore each other, maintaining Cheshire Cat grins throughout their late-night chats. The end of this sustaining dynamic is the film's worst-case scenario.

Your Sister's Sister

Jack's blustering ("He gets a little posture-y when he's nervous," Iris explains) is consistently entertaining, with Duplass again demonstrating mastery of a bright dude-next-door persona. Eviscerating Iris' "terrible taste in men" (Converse, no socks, studded belts), Jack is an appealing, self-righteously sloppy everyman fighting through depression and bile with affable conversations. Jack comes to understand that the sisters' bond trumps his claims upon Iris' friendship or romantic interest, shuts up and removes himself from the situation, breaking with a film-long pattern of trying to evade responsibility by covering up the truth. The wordless fallout from all the verbal escalation takes the mostly filler form of postcard views of the landscape, alternated with Jack biking and the two sisters not talking.

Your Sister's Sister's merits are in its opening hour, as sibling bonding alternates with Jack sweating through a potentially cartoonish situation. Personal mannerisms shaped by liberal social norms are established through broad how-we-live-now gags (a vegan pancake breakfast where Hannah's tweaked for her refusal to use butter) and three distinct vernaculars: Jack's slacker-male version of persiflage, Iris' earnest affection, Hannah's blunt assertiveness. Moment to moment, the opening comedy-of-manners hour of contemporary sexual mores is unfailingly convincing, a verisimilitude lingering long past the cop-out finale.

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Posted by ahillis at June 13, 2012 5:42 PM