The family way
Your Sister’s Sister
Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister bears a telltale credit at the end: Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mike Birbiglia are all identified as “creative consultants.” Since these four actors are the only ones who speak in the movie’s entire 90 minutes, the implication is obvious, and cheerfully acknowledged by Shelton herself—the dialogue is almost entirely improvised. It just may be that I’m spending more time writing this review than Shelton spent “writing” Your Sister’s Sister.
But Shelton’s process is different, and it has its rewards. Even apparent missteps can lead to revelations. In the opening scene, a group is gathered to commemorate the death, one year before, of their friend Tom. Al (Birbiglia) gets up and, proposing a toast, begins: “It’s so hard to eulogize someone who you look up to.” What could that mean? Is it really easier to eulogize someone you didn’t admire?
Maybe Al means it’s hard without turning the deceased into a little plaster saint, because that’s exactly what he does. When Tom’s brother Jack (Duplass) takes drunken exception to Al’s idealized, vapid portrait, everybody squirms. Jack’s best friend Iris (Blunt), who happens to have been Tom’s ex-girlfriend, decides it’s time to act. “This,” she whispers to him, “is your intervention.” She orders him to retreat to her father’s island vacation cabin, unwind there alone and come to terms with his grief.
I’d have thought Jack might better come to terms with the burbling ass Al, but then the movie couldn’t move on to Chapter Two: Jack Goes to the Cabin. As it turns out, Iris was wrong: the place isn’t empty. Already in residence is Iris’s lesbian sister Hannah (DeWitt), licking her wounds over an ended seven-year relationship.
One thing leads to another, and a shared bottle of tequila leads to a boozy sexual encounter, a fumbling, grunting, sodden tumble that’s over in less than a minute.
Then, Chapter Three: Iris Shows Up. She’s overjoyed to see that her sister and her best friend have finally met, but Jack panics, his unresolved—or unrequited—feelings for Iris bubbling over. He pleads with Hannah not to let Iris know about their one-night stand. After a late-night girl-talk session with Iris, in which Iris confesses that she thinks she’s in love with Jack, Hannah agrees.
But a secret like that can’t stay hidden, or we’d have no movie. When the truth finally comes out, it’s with a double scoop of betrayal that’s better experienced than spoiled in a review. Let’s just say Hannah comes off as less wholly admirable than Shelton and DeWitt may have intended her to look—a selfish conniver (even when drunk) who risks disrespecting her own sister and a virtual stranger; a self-righteous prig who guilt-trips her nonvegan sister over a teaspoon of butter in the mashed potatoes.
Is this intended? I suspect not. I think the warm-fuzzy group hug that climaxes Your Sister’s Sister shows that Shelton intends to show that all three sides of this triangle are basically decent people. And they are—only maybe some of them are more decent than others.
That’s the kind of thing that can surface, possibly unintended, in improvisation. And it’s what makes Your Sister’s Sister, despite the mechanical contrivances of Shelton’s basic framework, feel fresh and real as it hits the screen. Blunt, DeWitt and Duplass find their own rhythms in their characters, and their rhythms drive the movie. (Birbiglia, once he’s served his schematic purpose of ticking off Duplass’s Jack, is dismissed forever.)
Other things surface that Shelton’s outline probably didn’t anticipate, like the semi-elaborate backstory we are told to explain why Iris has a British accent and Hannah doesn’t. As it happens, DeWitt was a last-minute replacement for Rachel Weisz, who had to drop out. But if that hadn’t happened, who knows, we might not have had the version of Iris and Hannah’s unseen father that we get now. And in turn, we might not have Jack’s observation of how Dad’s love-’em-and-leave-’em pattern is repeated in Iris.
Such are the pleasures of improv when the players are as sharp and canny as they are here. Lynn Shelton planted this garden patch and let it grow. That’s a kind of writing, too.