Monday, June 18, 2012

‘Your Sister’s Sister’ directed by Lynn Shelton, 16th June 2012

Somewhat inevitably, there is a lot of flannel in this film.

As I’ve said before, I appreciate films that wear their heart on their sleeve, and ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ definitely does that.  The film is a very pared down three character comedy/drama about personal interactions, unrequited love and the shifting nature of romantic relationships.  I’m unfamiliar with writer/director Lynn Shelton’s previous work (aside from an episode of Mad Men), but this is one of those films that you can sense has arrived onscreen with very little interference from outside parties.

Our three characters are Iris (Emily Blunt), Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Jack (Mark Duplass).  As the film begins Jack is Iris’ best friend, and upon seeing his general emotional troubles orders him to spend some time alone at her family’s remote cabin.  Upon arriving, he discovers that Iris’ sister, Hannah is unexpectedly staying there.  The two get drunk and have sex, waking up the next morning to discover that Iris has arrived.  The stage is thus set for a series of secrets, confessions and shifting allegiances between the three characters.

There is a purposeful tranquillity to the film, and even when emotions run high we never feel like things are running out of control.  These are characters more likely to go and sit on their own and think rather than make violent emotional outbursts.  In terms of pace the film meanders along at its own speed.  There are no ultimatums or deadlines, no-one seems to be rushing anywhere.  Indeed at one point one character leaves the other two for an indeterminate amount of time to be alone, and it is silently accepted that they will reappear when they’re ready.

 This sense of calm is boosted by the set, a remote but fairly luxurious cabin out on an island.  It sits on the shores of a great, still lake, and frequently the characters will sit (in slightly consciously cinematic poses) contemplating it.  The house has a lot of earthy, natural tones with hardwood floors and exposed wooden beams and pillars – it intrinsically feels like a calming place.  The various characters’ bedrooms feel somewhat womblike, with beds that seem to encourage people to curl up into a fetal position.   The solitude and focus is aided in part by the lack of technology at the cabin.  There are no mobile phones there, no internet and seemingly no television.  This is explicitly pointed out in the script as a plus point – a lack of distraction is portrayed as inarguably a ‘good thing’.  The characters inhabiting this peaceful world have nothing to get in the way of their interactions with each other, indeed several conversations take place while the characters are lying in bed with each other.

All three leads put in fine performances.  They’re all slightly lost and emotionally damaged, some more obviously than others, and they all have their various secrets that get revealed over the course of the film.

Mark Duplass is very good as Jack – playing a kind of muted Seth Rogan type.  It has become a bit of a cliché in the last half decade for films to show us a “realistic” male character as opposed to a film star type.  Generally this translates into a somewhat scruffy looking unshaven semi-slob with a heart of gold.  This character type started as a subversive take on a male lead, but has quickly become a sort of dominant role in modern male orientated ‘gross out’ comedies.  He’s the kind of character that as soon as you see him, you know that by the end of the film he will have gained a new understanding of responsibility, learned something about what it “truly” means to be a man and generally grown up a little.  By now this character arc is well trodden and explored ground.  ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ does not deviate spectacularly from this type.  However, in keeping with the pared-down and realistic tone of the drama, some of the more outré elements are eliminated very quickly. The performance differs from its other, more comedic cousins in that the character does not begin the film blissfully unaware of his own failings.  The underlying emotional core of Jack is that his brother died over a year ago, and he is still coming to terms with it.  He knows he’s a bit messed up over it, and accepts his best friend Iris’ advice to spend some time thinking about to do with his life.  As the narrative progresses and he becomes more entangled in the sister’s lives we see him both having responsibilities thrust upon him, and also coming to terms with his own life.  The film never completely neuters his caustic side though, and he’s funny in a self-deprecating way right up until the end credits. 

Hannah, as played by Rosemarie DeWitt is another character that dangerously approaches cliché.  She’s the lesbian, vegan, older step-sister of Iris, and we quickly learn that she has just ended a 7 year relationship with her partner.  She occupies the same kind of space as the slightly off-beat, but not culturally threatening friend that mainstream romantic comedies tend to have.  Even though she does fulfil a number of stereotypical tropes though, DeWitt’s performance here is generally subtle and underplayed.  Her veganism is used occasionally as the punchline for a joke, but never directly at the character’s expense and refreshingly her lesbianism is not particularly dwelled upon, and is treated as entirely ordinary.  Her mannerisms and self-confident style are swiftly and efficiently sketched out by DeWitt, and she deploys a wickedly flirty smile to devastating effect. 

Her sister, Iris, as played by Emily Blunt is arguably the least interesting of the three, purely by dint of the fact that she begins the film with the least problems.  She is a fairly ordinary girl working in a creative field who has her head screwed on straight and gives good advice.  It’s interesting to see how Jack and Hannah shift their allegiances in relation to her.  The film  spends a lot of time examining the importance of the sororal relationship between Iris and Hannah, using Jack’s bond with his dead brother as a point of comparison.  Iris tends to be placed on a pedestal, something (initially) to be emulated or desired, and she only really becomes interesting as a character in her own right when she’s swept into the inter-personal conflicts that drive the narrative.  Iris seems like a difficult character to get under the skin of, and at least initially Blunt has to play her as reactive instead of proactive, but she reaches some impressive emotional heights in the final act.  Even so, purely by dint of her playing a more psychologically healthy character she has to work harder to make her interesting to us.

I think the film can be criticised on a character level for violating the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ a bit too often.  In the case of Jack we are explicitly told he is damaged and emotionally crippled, but we aren’t really directly shown this.  The first scene of the film is him causing a ‘scene’ at a memorial for his dead brother, but while he may be acting in a socially awkward way, he’s absolutely correct in what he says. His pain in the film seems to arise from events within the narrative of the film rather than from his past.  We’re just told that he’s a mess at the start, rather than explicitly seeing it. Then again, an overly melodramatic scene of him being unnecessarily abrasive and rude would run the risk of alienating the audience from one of the primary characters and somewhat spoil the tranquil atmosphere that the film creates.  Still, throughout the film we are told repeatedly exactly how the characters are feeling at any one moment, and even though the dialogue never feels artificial, it prevents us from coming to our own conclusions about what is going on.  I always feel a little more emotionally invested when I’m allowed to intuit character motivations and feelings rather than being told them. 

In spite of this slight deficiency, it’s still easy to get wrapped up in the lives of these people.  They react to events realistically, in a reflexive non-cinematic way.  A drunken and clumsy sex scene towards the start of the film is simultaneously depressingly and hilariously realistic in its brevity.  The way the film treats sex in general is right on the money- it adeptly captures that shift between drunken and sober logic.  It feels easy to convince yourself when you’re drunk and horny that sleeping with someone’s sister or best friend isn’t going to have any consequences and hey, we’re both single, and well – they’d probably be cool with it anyway right?  Moments like these where the characters deal with their frantic self-justification, excuses and lies is when the film seems most honest and works best.

It’s also nice that even though the film lives or dies by the audience’s ability to empathise with the leads, it does not shy away from having them act extremely unpleasantly.  It’s difficult to try and gauge the razor thin line between what a character can do and keep the audience on their side.  For example, in one scene Iris and Jack put butter in the vegan Hannah’s mashed potatoes as a joke.  There is some excellent acting from DeWitt here as she acts with decorum and but while also expressing her disgust with the breach of trust.  It shows a confidence in your characterisation if you’re prepared to let the audience view your as leads bullies.  Even if the characters later make up, you run the risk of leaving an unpleasant impression.  There is a much larger breach of trust later in the film which echoes the moment with the mashed potatoes and takes our characters even closer to the moral event horizon, and it is a credit to both the performers and the writer/director that we still basically like these characters even through those moments.

‘Your Sister’s Sister’ is solid character-based drama, and while this is hardly a film with an edge-of-your-seat white knuckle narrative, it more than succeeds in making you care about the various emotional complexities of three slightly damaged people.  There is a slightly trite plot twist towards the end of the film that seems a little bit over-engineered and telegraphed,  but it at least sets up a fantastic ending.  Lynn Shelton makes it all look effortless and easy, this is a simple story with few locations after all, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface. This film is intelligently written and constructed, the performances are all well gauged and while it may not be an epoch changing, genre-busting triumph it does everything it sets out to. 

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