Your Sister’s Sister will probably be described by some as ‘mumblecore,’ and by others as character study, but I would call it character observation, for its greatest strengths lie in the simple, unassuming character interactions we are made privy to. Writer/director Lynn Shelton understands that life is not comprised of ‘plots’ with beginnings, middles, and endings; we exist in our own perpetual ‘middles,’ and when our actions lead to something significant, that doesn’t signal a climax, but a bridge towards the next step in our ongoing journeys.
This fundamental principle lies at the heart of Your Sister’s Sister. It is why, rather than craft a forced or disingenuous narrative, Shelton simply takes the three fascinating characters she has created, puts them in an isolated setting together, and lets them bounce off one another until meaningful breakthroughs are made. There are themes at play here, but they are subtle and understated. The point of the work is not to impart any singular message, but to observe how these characters interact; what we glean from minor, seemingly insignificant conversations will inform our ultimate takeaway just as much as the ‘big’ moments. It is an authentically, enticingly low-key film, and though this will no doubt turn off some viewers, I found it to be a unique and refreshing experience.
Mark Duplass stars as Jack, a thirty-something man entrenched in melancholy after the death of his brother. After an outburst at a party, his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) decides he needs help, and suggests he spend a week alone at her family’s lake house. Jack agrees, but upon arriving, he finds the house is already occupied by Iris’ sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Like Jack, Hannah has come to spend some quality time with her thoughts; she’s just ended a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. The two stay up late drinking together, and with their judgment impaired, decide to have sex. Things become complicated when Iris arrives the next morning, intending to surprise Jack, and all three characters wind up harboring secrets from the people they care about.
This is the set-up, but as previously stated, the film is not driven by ‘plot.’ The chief allure is what we learn from watching the three lead actors, each magnificent and natural in their respective roles. Between this and Safety Not Guaranteed, Duplass has spent the month of June proving there are few men his age more adept at displaying damage and regret. Blunt is her usual compelling self, but Shelton’s script allows her to be truly vulnerable, making this the actress’ most engaging performance since Sunshine Cleaning. DeWitt and her character will no doubt prove more divisive, but she is rather tremendous at wearing Hannah’s flaws and strengths on her sleeves, out there for the world to see. It is a brave performance, one that should not be underestimated.
Duplass, Blunt, and DeWitt share outstanding chemistry, and the film’s simplest and most obvious pleasures come from watching them sit at a table and exchange words. Though the script appears to be a sharp piece of writing, each performer inhabits their character so completely that discerning where scripted dialogue stops and improvisation begins is a futile task. Along with the film’s smartly measured pace, this creates a nuanced naturalism that is practically hypnotic. Fiction doesn’t, by conventional wisdom, err this close to reality, and yet an awful lot of Your Sister’s Sister feels like it could have been ripped straight out of a Cinema Verité documentary.
This is, I believe, the intended effect. The aesthetics – handheld cinematography and a near-total lack of music – certainly indicate Shelton’s goal. We are meant to simply observe these characters as they meet at a crossroads, and because we all see the world in different ways, the messages I take away will be unlike those gleaned by others. Shelton obviously wishes to say something about the nature of siblinghood, but what? Depending on how (or even if) each individual viewer grew up with brothers and sisters, Jack, Hannah, and Iris’ exchanges will be viewed differently.
Me? I have written at length in other pieces about the healthy relationship I share with my brother. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Therefore, I comprehend a profound importance to the bond Iris and Hannah share that other viewers may read quite differently. In the action we see on-screen, they don’t necessarily get along like best friends. At times, they seem like diametrically opposed individuals unfit to share the same space. Yet they are important to each other; Iris can tell Hannah things she feels uncomfortable sharing with anyone else, and it’s implied that she has served as a similar sounding board for Hannah on several previous occasions. They need one another, even if their relationship periodically involves discomfort.
When it comes to these two characters, at least, I am content to take Your Sister’s Sister as a 90-minute exploration of this fundamental enigma. That is because I view the film with the eyes of someone who has lived with this enigma, and been forced to come to terms with it. When I hear Hannah tell her sister “I love you, but I don’t like you,” I interpret that as the film’s most crucial line. But this all comes from my own thoughts on siblinghood; I would be interested to speak with viewers who came to more concrete conclusions on how Hannah and Iris treat each other, or who focused their attention more on Jack’s actions and the love he and Iris harbor for one another. Shelton does not, for the most part, force us to view events in any single way, and in a film with characters as rich as these, that makes everything click.
I don’t feel the final twenty minutes or so are quite as successful as the first hour in illustrating authentic character dynamics. Shelton edges too closely to dramatic convolutions for her own good, and though I appreciate the ambiguous nature of the ending, there are other, earlier ambiguous notes that feel like more appropriate stopping points. The sporadic use of music also troubles me; there is so little score in the film that when it does appear, it sounds positively jarring, and never in a good way. I would vastly prefer it if Shelton had restricted her soundscape to the film’s diegesis and nothing more.
But these are minor complaints unlikely to bother viewers connected to the film’s wavelength. Your Sister’s Sister is certainly not for everyone, and I have a feeling you will either reject the film entirely or embrace it as something surprising and special. I cannot say I have a great amount of passion for the film, but when one watches as many movies as I do, those that bear a strong voice and meaningful authenticity always stand out. Your Sister’s Sister is one of those films, and I admire it greatly.
Your Sister's Sister is a fine piece of character observation. It's low-key, casual, and tremendously insightful. It won't be for everybody, but that's a good thing. It's a strong, focused piece of work.