Read The Wall Street Journal Rave for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER
Posted on Friday, June 15th, 2012 by Lauren
Iris invites her friend Jack to stay at her family’s island getaway after the death of his brother. At their remote cabin, Jack’s drunken encounter with Hannah, Iris’ sister, kicks off a revealing stretch of days. Video courtesy of IFC Films.
First it was thumbs up or thumbs down, the Siskel & Ebert formula for reducing movies to binary categories. Now it’s fresh or rotten, a la Rotten Tomatoes. But a sharper distinction suggested itself during a screening of “Your Sister’s Sister.” Movies are either alive or dead. The dead ones can be swirling with action, seething with special effects and blessed with stupendous budgets, yet never come to spontaneous life. That’s the sorry fate of more and more productions churned out by the entertainment conglomerates, where demographics, market share and overseas prospects crowd artistry off the lot. The alive ones can overcome almost any constraints. Lynn Shelton’s lovely tale of swirling feelings was shot in a mere 12 days, on a budget that must have been minuscule. A couple of minutes after it’s started, though, you know you’re in the presence of people who will surprise and delight you.
The plot is merely a set of givens that put things in motion. One year after his brother died, Jack (the actor and director Mark Duplass) is bewildered, bitter and existentially stuck. To get him unstuck, Emily Blunt’s Iris, the brother’s ex-girlfriend and now Jack’s steadfast friend, sends him off for some solitary self-reflection in her family’s cabin on a peaceful island in the Pacific Northwest. But Jack’s solitude doesn’t last long; if it did there’d be no movie. Unbeknownst to Iris, the cabin is occupied by her sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just ended a lesbian relationship after seven years.
This encounter, with its sexual dissonance, has a potential for comedy that’s fueled by tequila and fulfilled by two terrific actors who share a gift for high-speed changes; it’s great fun to watch Jack and Hannah in the course of what he describes as “barging through the doors of your privacy.” But the movie itself is a showcase of high-speed changes that begin when Iris shows up, in violation of the alone time she’d prescribed for Jack, to find two seekers of island solitude instead of one. Soon the comedy darts and lurches into darker regions that are mapped by Ms. Shelton and her stars with brave disregard for fixed boundaries. (The dialogue, naturalistic yet electric, was largely improvised on the basis of an informal script and lots of notes.) Charming banter gives way to romantic yearning, sibling rivalry and confused struggles with unacknowledged feelings that have ruled these three lives until now.
“Your Sister’s Sister” is a small movie: I don’t want to oversell it as a big event. And the remarkably tight shooting schedule, which may well have heightened the drama, has taken a toll on visual values: not enough money, thus not enough time, to provide lighting setups for night interiors, most of which are fairly murky. (This is a new-tech paradox. The sort of digital cameras used here can dispense with artificial light in dim environments where film would fail, but lighting isn’t just a matter of making things brighter; it’s a tool for controlling mood, sculpturing faces, enhancing emotion.)
Still, several of the best scenes take place in the semidarkness of a bedroom where Hannah and Iris, sharing a bed, try to understand what’s happening to them, and what it means for the future. I’ve seldom seen such delicate control as in these conversations between two women. And I’ve never seen a man vent his fury, as Jack does, on an innocent bicycle. Toward the end of the tale, when any reasonable resolution of the trio’s trials seems out of reach, one of them says “I’m tired of being dead, and I want to come back to life.” The film pulses with life from start to finish.