REVIEW: Lynn Shelton Mines Gold from Small Moments in Your Sister's Sister
In the opening scene of Lynn Shelton’s fourth feature we join a conversation in progress. Or a few conversations: Voices overlap, rise and fall, fade in and out; it’s a party, small enough to sustain a few low-volume simultaneous conversations, large enough to fill the room with chatter. As in Shelton’s previous films, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, in Your Sister’s Sister we join the central characters at a moment of convergence, after a period of separation or crisis and before it becomes clear things can’t go on as they were before.
In this case it is Jack (played by Shelton’s frequent collaborator Mark Duplass) whose voice cuts through the room where a small memorial is taking place on the first anniversary of his brother’s death. A friend’s rose-colored remembrance (Mike Birbiglia cameos) puts Jack on edge; he counters it with an anecdote that begins with a viewing of Revenge of the Nerds and ends with a description of his brother’s inherent cruelty and calculated transformation into a “good” person. Having killed the room, a drunken Jack is hauled aside by Iris (Emily Blunt), an ex-girlfriend of his brother’s, who stages a brisk intervention. Jack’s life is in a holding pattern — his current condition precludes a job and a girlfriend, he admits — and Iris suggests a week away at her family’s summer home on an island off the Seattle coast.
Tugged closer by their shared loss, Iris and Jack have relocated their friendship into the gray zone between romance and platonic comfort. It’s a sweet spot for Shelton, one familiar from her previous films as a safe place to question the integrity of the roles we set up for ourselves and in our most personal relations. Rejuvenation is also associated with a retreat to some wooded corner of the Pacific Northwest in Shelton’s films — a literal gray zone courtesy of a snug skullcap of cloud — with the action triggered when one character unexpectedly turns up at another character’s door. Finally, the writer-director has become known for effacing a high concept plotline with naturalistic performances and shooting styles.
At times — as with the contrast of Joshua Leonard the dissolute hipster and Duplass the young fogey in Humpday — Shelton’s more schematic choices form a kind of challenge: The engaging naturalism of the performances defies you to dismiss her characters as tool-and-die types; the higher the concept, the more desperately human her characters appear. Certainly the former is true of Hannah, a vegan-lesbian, lapsed painter, baby-seeking thirtysomething who has the good fortune of being played by Rosemarie DeWitt. The adored older sister of Iris, Hannah is recently split from her girlfriend of seven years and already installed in the cabin when Jack (Duplass is excellent as a certain kind of shaggy, flirty, low-level operator) shows up there late one night. After the misunderstanding is resolved, the two embark on an overnight drunk, throwing back a few getting-to-know-you tequilas before essentially daring each other into bed.
Like many of Shelton’s scenarios, on paper that scene shouldn’t work. It’s too cute, too contrived, and too close to a terrible romantic comedy. And yet you watch it begin to breathe despite itself, in the faces and behavior of the actors and the spaces and silences built around them, until the interaction takes on a convincing energy of its own. Shelton reassembled her team of cinematographer Ben Kasulke and editor Nat Sanders for Your Sister’s Sister, and as in her previous films the three establish a striking observational style and pace along with a story told almost exclusively through conversations. They also draw a welcome freshness from the lead actresses: DeWitt keeps the poignancy behind Hannah’s aloof, pragmatic persona close to the surface, and Blunt gives one of her most delicate performances as the open-hearted Iris.
Iris’s sudden arrival at the cabin completes an awkward triangle that is drawn and redrawn over a night and the next day. Secrets are confided, kept, leaked, and then blown open; Iris and Jack’s latent feelings for each other encounter an obstacle before they even have a chance to emerge. A series of lovely, revealing scenes play out in the cabin before that point, the sparely distributed score (by Vince Smith) set off by the aching hollow tones of a big empty house. But the climactic scene itself and the over-long montage that follows upsets Shelton’s slight but satisfying dramatic balance.
Nuanced touches continue to form and present themselves on the way to a speechy and then coy resolution, but they feel diminished by the loss of the previous hour’s tightly configured, inter-character tension. It’s a mark of Shelton’s ability to create living characters from seemingly minor shared moments -- the ones that wind up meaning everything — that Iris, Jack, and Hannah remain vivid while the film’s disappointing finish quickly fades.