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Your Sister’s Sister

June 19, 2012
Your Sister's Sister

At the risk of sounding like a conservative deficit hawk, sometimes a little austerity can be a good thing. Mark Duplass — and his brother Jay, incidentally — and Lynn Shelton came up in the “mumblecore” movement of do-it-yourself filmmakers, and now they’re making films like Your Sister’s Sister. With some decent capital behind it, this is not a shaky amateur production, but the lessons that Shelton learned as a writer and director — having to focus on dialogue and character — are paying dividends now.

As we start it’s been a year since Tom died. We never see him, except in some photos, but his spirit hangs over the whole movie. His brother, Jack (Duplass), is still in a bad way over it. Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack’s close friend and Tom’s ex-girlfriend, all but orders him to take some time at her father’s house on an island near enough to Seattle to bike there. It’s heading towards winter, so nobody will be around; there’s no television or internet; Jack can be left alone with his thoughts to get himself together.

But when Jack shows up, the house isn’t empty. Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ older sister from their father’s first marriage, is there for some of her own alone time after breaking things off with her girlfriend of seven years. Initial trepidations are set aside — tequila has a way of doing that — and the two end up in bed together. Luckily, Jack wakes up the next morning in time to avoid being caught when Iris shows up unexpectedly.

It’s a deceptively simple premise, and in another movie could form the basis of a straightforward bedroom farce. These characters and their relationships are deeper and more complicated than they at first appear, and even more so than we ever directly see. Tom’s death is never explained, for instance, and a handful of oblique references to Iris and Tom’s breakup raise the spectres of suicide and guilt, but only just.

This sort of light touch with dialogue gives away Shelton’s mumblecore background, though this no lo-fi production. It’s not clear how much — if any — of the dialogue is improvised, but it spills out naturally, with hesitations and interruptions intact. Still, Blunt, DeWitt, and Duplass are professionals, so they don’t mumble their own lines or obscure each other’s, even when they all talk at once. They feel utterly natural in their roles, but without any movie-star posture.

If this is a sign of things to come it’s a very welcome sign indeed. Mumblecore started in the same do-it-yourself spirit that gave rise to low-fidelity strains of indie rock in the late ’90s. And, as Lars von Trier tried to achieve intentionally with Dogme 95 and its “Vow of Chastity”, the lack of high tech equipment and fancy production values forced a renewed focus on plot and character, and brought out a naturalistic style. Whether or not you like the unpolished aesthetic — I certainly prefer von Trier’s more heavily-produced work to his Dogme films — it’s a great improvement over canned storylines and characters, bereft of any mental nutrients.

The risk is the one that befell lo-fi music: confusing the poor production values that in some cases brought out authentic quality for authenticity itself. Poor equipment doesn’t substitute for skill; it exposes skill, or the lack thereof. And when better conditions are available a skilled artist, trained under harsh conditions, can produce even better art. It would be a mistake for Shelton to eschew the best materials she can find now that she’s earned her access to them. Your Sister’s Sister is a solid, well-made film that doesn’t need high production values either to tell its story or to compensate for the lack, but a fine package can only improve a precious gift.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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