For all the naturalism on display in Your Sister’s Sister, nothing in it quite feels real. While it features semi-improvised dialogue and unhurried pacing, the action is decidedly dreamy. Sequestered in a fantastic cabin on an island off the coast of Washington state, the characters are buffered from daily pressures and everyday responsibilities. Each supposedly experiences a life-changing emotional crisis, but the picture is shot so prettily (by cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke) that all their handwringing and yearning look like picturesque leisure. And the film is irredeemably marred by a third-act plot twist that’s as contrived as a story about attractive white people like these getting murdered one by one in the woods.
All this is set up when Jack (Mark Duplass) is invited by his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) to use her family’s vacation cabin to mourn his brother’s death, which occurred a year ago. Here he doesn’t encounter the solitude he expects, but instead Iris’ lesbian sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s nursing her own broken heart. They share sad stories while pounding down shots of tequila in a well-observed scene about the awkwardness of meeting the close friends of family members, complete strangers about whom you know too much. Jack and Hannah compound that awkwardness by having a drunken fumble in bed. Worse, they awaken the next morning to Iris’ chirpy arrival.
The convincing rhythms of of that first night give way to a low-key farce when Hannah is able to play it cool about what’s happened but Jack cannot. When Iris rather predictably tells Hannah that she’s in love with Jack, the situation is complicated just so: each individual shares a secret with another that the third one doesn’t know, creating an effervescence of pleasurable discomfort that carries the film through its second act. The script perfectly captures the danger and thrill of confessions on the verge of being spoken, providing as well compelling reasons for each secret to be revealed and not to be revealed. This tension is nicely heightened by the several clumsy conversations among all three characters, when the intimacy of family or friendship collides with the relative unfamiliarity between Hannah and Jack.
When the spell breaks, however, the film quickly loses its already tenuous ties to reality. Hannah’s character development, in particular, is sacrificed for the big plot twist, and what happens next seems less like a succession of spontaneous events than a political statement about family configurations. The overly tidy ending flattens the layers of emotional complications the film spends its first two acts setting up. Frustratingly, the emotional resolution is dependent on the nature of the relationship between the two sisters: while the script isn’t so silly or lazy as to make Iris and Hannah diametric opposites, it doesn’t delineate their affinity or friction in great detail, either, such that their reconciliation seems a necessity more than a shift in understandings.
Writer-director Lynn Shelton gives Duplass and DeWitt all the heavy lifting here. Duplass, who also starred in Shelton’s Humpday, evidently earned top marks at the Mark Ruffalo School of Schlubby Affability. Jack’s is the broadest character arc of the three, but Duplass also seems to be the one most in tune with the nuances of Shelton’s script. DeWitt is, as always, seductively aloof, though that may just be her irrepressibly twinkling presence, still visible beneath her butch costumes. Hannah’s abrupt transformation into a psychopath is quickly forgiven by the script, since lingering on it would get in the way of the film’s preordained destination. Blunt is agreeable enough, but the script doesn’t give her much more to do than be the link between the two characters in pain.
Why bother evoking such striking naturalism, only to end the film in sitcomish contrivance? I suspect a retrospective of Shelton’s oeuvre decades from now will view Your Sister’s Sister as a transitional work, one that sees her clinging to her roots in the improvised mumblecore form even when the story doesn’t call for it. Shelton’s next film, Touchy Feely, also co-starring DeWitt, is reportedly “more scripted.” Here’s hoping that this approach helps to clarify what she has to say.