[originally published in The Herald in 2012]
One thing everybody could agree on at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was the rightness of the opening night movie. It was Your Sister’s Sister, directed by Seattle resident Lynn Shelton, and it set the tone for the Northwesty slant of the festival that followed.
It makes an even better story that Your Sister’s Sister happens to be a highly enjoyable film, perhaps Shelton’s best yet. This one shares the semi-improvised method of Shelton’s Humpday, and also the sneaky sense that there really is a structure underlying the apparently easygoing story.
That story is set almost entirely at a cabin in the San Juan Islands. Iris (Emily Blunt) has made the family cabin available to her old friend Jack (Mark Duplass), so he can have a place to chill by himself while still getting over his brother’s death a year earlier.
Much to Jack’s surprise, the night he arrives at the cabin, it is already occupied: by Iris’s sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), herself nursing a broken heart over a recent breakup with her longtime girlfriend.
It would really be better to let the various turns of the plot happen without too much spoiling, so let’s just say that a bottle of booze and the unexpected arrival of Iris complicate the getaway. The three people find they have a great deal of explaining to do to each other, most of which comes out in amusingly tortured ways.
Shelton’s approach to comedy is to make room for the actors to create their own character histories, and improvise responses within the outlined scenes. This means that many scenes go by with an unpredictable conversational quality; when Jack and Hannah have too many drinks in the wee hours, we have a pretty good idea where this might be going, but no idea how it’s going to get there.
The trick to this for a filmmaker is knowing how to shave these scenes so that they retain the quality of freshness, without frittering away into random improv. Shelton has good instincts about that, so the film moves right along, but never approaches the canned one-liners of a sitcom.
The three actors have much to do with this success, of course. Mark Duplass previously lent his regular-guy qualities to the male one-upmanship on display in Humpday, and he hits similar notes here, but with a more grown-up edge to them.
Emily Blunt is now an international star, while Rosemarie DeWitt is known as the bride in Rachel Getting Married and from a recurring role on Mad Men. They get equal weight in Your Sister’s Sister, and both deliver nicely: just different enough to create tension, but close enough to be related.
And both conveying the hushed privilege of late-night conversations, where truths get told and bonds get tested. The movie’s got a fine appreciation of such encounters, which feel all the more privileged within these low-key circumstances.