Film review – Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Your Sister’s Sister: Jack (Mark Duplass), Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt)
Jack (Mark Duplass), Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt)

Director Lynn Shelton may not be revolutionising the American indi, but it feels like she is making films that embrace the full potential of low budget filmmaking. Your Sister’s Sister is Shelton’s biggest budget film to date and contains a higher-profile cast than she has worked with before, yet it remains a small scope film that achieves extraordinary results within its self-imposed limitations. Most of the film is set in the one location and for most of the running time there are no other people on screen other than the three main characters: Jack (Mark Duplass) who is struggling not to fall apart one year on from his brother’s death, Iris (Emily Blunt) who is Jack’s friend and Jack’s dead brother’s ex-girlfriend, and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is Iris’s half sister and emotionally vulnerable after ending a seven year relationship.

One of the joys of watching Your Sister’s Sister comes from the incredible naturalism that Shelton coaxes from her actors. Shelton’s low budget and low fi approach to filmmaking reportedly results in a set where the performances from the actors are the focus, while a shooting period of less than two weeks means that by necessity the actors have to work very intensely on their roles. Unrehearsed and improvised, the acting from Duplass, Blunt and DeWitt is remarkable. All three fully inhabit their characters to the extent that the audience very quickly get a sense of who they are and how they relate to one another. At no point does the dialogue feel contrived or laboured, in the way that sometimes occurs with improvised dialogue. Blunt and DeWitt are convincingly affectionate towards each other as sisters while still being capable of rubbing salt into old wounds despite themselves, while Blunt and Duplass are very believable as old friends who care deeply for each other.

Similar to Shelton’s previous film Humpday (2009), Your Sister’s Sister features a love triangle of sorts due to the blurred boundaries between friendship and romantic companionship, and progressive attitudes towards sexuality. What makes both films work with such charm and conviction is Shelton’s refusal to be overtly provocative or political with the way her characters navigate their emotional and sexual drives. The characters usually mean well, but are still aware that their intentions may inadvertently hurt others or cause complications in their own lives. As a result feelings are concealed, secrets are kept, and in the long run situations become complicated in a way that is potentially highly destructive. What makes Your Sister’s Sister such an endearing film is that everything that takes place on screen feels convincing as Shelton is more concerned with representing her characters truthfully rather than pushing an agenda. Every ‘mistake’ made by a character makes complete sense within the context of every scene and the audience are never invited to judge the characters.

The tone of the film frequently teeters on the edge of cringe-comedy, however, Your Sister’s Sister never delves into full squirm-in-your-seat sequences. Shelton’s improvisational approach to dialogue is similar to that used by Larry David on the HBO television series Curb Your Enthusiasm, yet the results are notably different. David puts his audience through the wringer in the way he brilliantly generates laughs through scenarios that are painfully recognisable. Shelton’s style is to take the audience dangerously close to moments of intense awkwardness and discomfort, but to ease off at the last minute while still maintaining the integrity of every moment. The result is a film that manages to be edgy and unpredictable while also being extremely warm and engaging. Your Sister’s Sister is a funny, honest and empathetic film that is a credit to its actors (who are also credited as ‘creative consultants’) and filmmaker Lynn Shelton. The final act of the film begins to adopt characteristics of more mainstream cinema, such as an extended montage set to music where we see the characters grapple with inner demons after a big fall out, and if this is an indication that Shelton is moving towards making bigger budget and higher profile films then it is a welcome move. Hollywood rom-coms could certainly do with such a breath of fresh air.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012