Your Sister’s Sister is a gentle romantic comedy, an exploration of grief, and a loving tribute to siblings. Jack, played with genial melancholy by Mark Duplass, is not doing well in the year following his brother Tom’s death, after hitting rock bottom his best friend and Tom’s sometime girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt, warm and sardonic) prescribes a solitary retreat at her family’s cabin on Puget Sound, there he meets Iris’ half-sister Hannah (a charismatic, prickly Rosemarie DeWitt) licking her wounds after being left by her girlfriend of seven years. The plot that follows wouldn’t be out of place in a modern screwball comedy, but instead of spiraling out of control it is reeled back in with restraint and naturalism.
The naturalism stems from director Lynn Shelton’s filming technique, which involves her cast living together during an intense two-week shoot and improvising much of the dialogue. This means she usually works with very small casts (in this case it really is a three-hander) and only a few locations. Along with Joe Swanberg, and Mark and Jay Duplass, she is considered one of the top directors of the “Mumblecore” genre, typically micro-budget, talky independent films. But Shelton never lets Your Sister’s Sister feel claustrophobic. She allows it to breathe using stunning footage of Puget Sound, shot by cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, which acts as almost a fourth character in the film. Kasulke has worked with Shelton on all five of her feature films, including their mutual debut with her aptly named first film We Go Way Back.
The risk with Mumblecore and improvised dialogue is that it can feel aimless, with plot taking the backseat to meandering conversations and character development. Lynn Shelton and her actors create full-blooded interesting characters, and this is half the battle, making people that you want to spend an hour and a half eavesdropping on, but Shelton never ignores the other part of the equation. She gives her movies twists and turns, making her films more than just engaging character studies. The plots, when described (two straight friends making a drunken pledge to film themselves having sex for an art porn festival; a love triangle between a grieving man, his best friend and her lesbian sister; a dentist who mysteriously gains a magical healing touch) don’t necessarily sound promising, but Shelton excels at using these premises to explore the psychological underpinnings of friendship, sexuality and rivalry, always from a generous and compassionate viewpoint.
Lynn Shelton’s genius as a director and writer lies in her ability to control chaos. When audiences learn much of the dialogue was improvised they automatically assume that the screenplay was inconsequential, but for Your Sister’s Sister Shelton wrote a 70 page treatment to guide her actors and make sure they stayed on course. Improvisation does not mean throwing out structure. It takes a lot of organization to make things look so natural. This is why Shelton’s films go down so smoothly, and her experience as a freelance editor before she became a director means that she is continuously aware of pacing.
Shelton’s two most recent films, Touchy Feely (also available on Netflix streaming) and Laggies, have been her most ambitious projects, with larger casts, budgets and worlds. They also are her least successful. Laggies, an arrested development comedy starring Keira Knightly and Sam Rockwell, was Shelton’s first feature film with a ready-made script by someone else. It is her most commercial project, but despite fine performances from its leads, it struggles to find the right tone. The magical realist Touchy Feely, also starring Rosemarie DeWitt, as well as Josh Pais and Ellen Page (miscast as a high schooler), is closer to Shelton’s earlier work, but too many plot threads are left hanging. One gets the sense from these two outliers not that Shelton is losing her touch though, but that she is figuring out how her style can fit into more mainstream projects and exploring the new directions her films can take. Still Your Sister’s Sister represents a sweet spot in Lynn Shelton’s oeuvre, marrying her lo-fi roots with recognizable stars in a loose charming film about family, love and the things that people think are a good idea after a bottle of tequila has been consumed.
Lynn Shelton’s lovely tale of swirling feelings was shot in a mere 12 days, on a budget that must have been minuscule. A couple of minutes after it’s started, though, you know you’re in the presence of people who will surprise and delight you. – Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal