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.
Marlo, Charlize Theron’s lead character in Tully, fends off small talk with barrages of acid-dipped put-downs, and dismisses anything sentimental as corny. So you wonder what she would think of her own film, which conceals a tender heart within an outer skin of sandpaper.
That’s not a knock; Tully makes hipster sincerity look good. Its approach is the modus operandi of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. Their 2007 film Juno also used pregnancy as its jumping-off point, before coasting along on its cutesy one-liners and very conventional resolution. Thankfully, Tully is thornier and wearier, with an authentic sense of both dejection and hope.
If Woody Allen had been a woman born and raised in the Great Damp of the Pacific Northwest, Lynn Shelton might have been his name. Your Sister’s Sister warms the comedic cockles through sharp, largely improvised dialogue and quirky emotional connection among three not-quite-grown-up 30-somethings (Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), friends, relations and lovers who accidentally come to share a cabin in the woods for a week or so.
This crowd-pleasing chamber dramedy, Shelton’s first film since Humpday (2009), takes all the time it needs—suffering a bit of narrative sag in its middle—to reveal “family” secrets and resolve a Shakespeare-lite comedy of errors, while meandering toward sort-of reunion. (Trust me, Duplass was born to play Shakespeare’s Bottom.) Funny, confessional talk among folks whose suffering is mostly manageable builds a glow as fragile and transitory as midsummer fireflies, putting you in the mood to be forgiving when spontaneity goes south in favor of an unconvincing, hippie-dippy finish.
Another waft of indie milkweed, Safety Not Guaranteed won’t stay with you much longer than it takes to walk out of the theater. Only audiences hooked on quirky romantic comedy unruffled by grown-up passion or personality will sink happily into the warm bathwater that is Safety. First-time feature director Colin Trevorrow’s fey tale features clueless Hansels and a Gretel abroad in the land of whimsy, deadpan and twee, hoping to stumble onto a way home.
Safety‘s disoriented 20-somethings are Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Karan Soni (Touch) — each recognizable as a one-dimensional type currently swarming TV sitcoms, especially those that feature “girl” in their titles. The film’s certified as authentic oddball indie by the shambling presence of Mark Duplass (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Your Sister’s Sister). Where skinny little Woody Allen once was king of the nebbishes, Duplass now rules. A soft, cuddly baby-man, his deadpan delivery suggests affectation and arrested development of the sweetest kind.
When he happens upon a personals ad seeking a sidekick for time travel (“Must bring your own weapon. Safety not guaranteed.”), a slick Seattle Magazine reporter jumps on the chance to scoop a juicy backstory — and enjoy a paid vacation. Shanghaiing two hapless interns, he heads for the Oregon Coast burg of Ocean View.
Humpday, the third feature from local filmmaker Lynn Shelton, made its world premiere in the Dramatic Competition section of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film sale of the festival and went on to win a Special Jury Prize “For the Spirit of Independence.” It subsequently played in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was the Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It makes its theatrical debut on Friday, June 10 in New York and Seattle.
Humpday is the story of best friends – one married and seemingly content in a conventional lifestyle, the other an aimless traveler whose artistic ambitions are unmatched by his accomplishments – who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project: two straight men having sex on camera for an amateur porno festival. Mark Duplass (of The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the indie blockbuster The Blair Witch Project) play the very straight buddies who essentially dare each other into the project and Seattle stage actress Alycia Delmore co-stars as Duplass’s wife. The rest of Shelton’s cast and crew was drawn from the pool of Seattle talent. I had previously interviewed Shelton about her first two features, We Go Way Back and My Effortless Brilliance [read the interview on Parallax View here] and and then kept running into her at screenings and receptions. Wouldn’t you know, we became friends. This interview was conducted at her home in January 2009, mere days before she left for the Sundance premiere (and before the film’s sale to Magnolia). It was relaxed and fun, probably the last interview she gave under such easy-going conditions, and he we hung out for over an hour talking movies, her particular approach to filmmaking and the Seattle independent scene, among other things.
How did you come to cast Mark Duplass?
I met Mark on the set of True Adolescents, which was being shot in Seattle in August of ’07. He was starring in it and I was shooting still photography. We knew of each other, we had mutual friends in the filmmaking community, so it was sort of like no introduction was necessary. We just gave each other a big old hug the first time we saw each other and immediately bonded as filmmakers. We would jabber away over the craft table and at lunch and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of our filmmaking philosophies. And it was really clear that we wanted to work together in some capacity by the time he went back to L.A.. I told him that I wanted to direct him.