I’d like to take a minute to introduce you to one of the more significant emerging talents in independent film right now. Lynn Shelton was associated early on with the so-called “mumblecore” movement, but she stood out from her colleagues in that DIY subgenre by virtue of being a woman in her 40s, in a movement dominated by men in their 20s. She first rose to prominence with Humpday, one of the funnier and more incisive comedies of 2009. Your Sister’s Sister is her follow-up to that film, retaining Humpday’s small scale while importing some big names. It’s not as good, but it’s still an entertaining piece that points to a potent up-and-coming talent. It’s playing this weekend at the Modern.
The film opens with Iris (Emily Blunt) realizing that her platonic best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) has been steadily turning into an antisocial jerk since his brother’s death a year ago. She sends him to clear his head at her father’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest. However, when Jack reaches the cabin, he finds it already occupied by Iris’ beloved older half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s in a similarly bad place, having just walked out on her girlfriend of seven years. The two bond over tequila shots and wind up having pretty bad sex, which might not be a big deal except that Jack is secretly in love with Iris, and she with him. When Iris unexpectedly turns up at the cabin the next morning, the stage is set for all kinds of awkwardness.
Shelton’s career has been entwined with Duplass’ — he starred in Humpday, is a filmmaker in his own right, and has been turning up everywhere on screen this summer (Safety Not Guaranteed, Darling Companion, People Like Us). Something about this paunchy guy with a nasal voice, bags under his eyes, and hair that has never known a stylist’s touch seems to be catnip to women. He’s a fair actor on his own, but he always seems to have great chemistry with pretty actresses. So he does here, whether he’s kidding Iris about her previous boyfriends (“Skinny Jeans Greg, Skinny Jeans Harry, Skinny Jeans Vinnie …”) or flirting with Hannah over booze.
One of the great things about this movie, and indeed about Shelton’s films in general, is the way she’s willing to step back and just invite us to watch her actors work. The dialogue is heavily improvised — the three stars are all listed in the credits as “creative consultants,” along with Mike Birbiglia, the only other actor with a speaking role of any length. Shelton and her actors are extraordinarily good at depicting the intricate dynamics of not only romantic relationships but also friendships and sibling relationships. You can see this in a great, quiet scene in Hannah’s bedroom, with Iris confessing her love for Jack to her sister. (Some British actors are too disciplined to improvise easily, but Blunt slips easily into the spirit of things.) The rapport between these actors is simply matchless, whether it’s between characters who’ve known each other for years or, in the case of Jack and Hannah, have only just met. This gives a delightful ease to the comic banter and also helps things be exactly as horrible as they need to be during the scene two-thirds of the way through when the truth, which involves further degrees of complication, comes out.
The problem crops up after that: There isn’t really enough material to get the movie to its end. We need a contemplative stretch after the fireworks of the big confrontation, but the montage of Jack cycling through the roads of the Pacific Northwest is sloppy. Even though Duplass plays his big final speech for all he’s worth, the ending still feels predetermined. This movie can’t find the same magic as Humpday, whose crowning glory was in its surprising yet logical conclusion.
Still, this picture is more insightful and truthful than the great majority of American domestic dramedies. Many critics would say that Lynn Shelton deserves to be working in Hollywood; it’s easy to imagine her making good movies there, after all. But why does she need to, especially when A-list talent comes to her? (Ellen Page is starring in Shelton’s next movie, by the way.) Your Sister’s Sister isn’t a great comedy, but it’s the work of a filmmaker who seems destined to make a great comedy. Let’s keep an eye on her.
Your Sister’s Sister
Starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Mark Duplass. Written and directed by Lynn Shelton. Rated R.