Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Your Sister's Sister [film review]

* Written for Toronto Screen Shots
"Lynn Shelton". Get used to hearing the name of the Seattle-based writer/director/producer/actor, because if her newest work is any indication, she's got a very bright filmmaking career ahead of her. Her fourth film and the follow-up to 2009's acclaimed Humpday, Your Sister's Sister is one of the smartest, most engaging relationship dramas (laced with charming humour) I've ever seen. Yes, it's that good.
The story doesn't exactly jump off the page, perhaps reading as the type of standard chick flick material that audiences have seen over and over again, with a subdued tone and pace that some viewers might find challenging. The magic in the film lies with the honesty and naturalism that Shelton derives from her characters and their interplay, delivered by equally outstanding performances from the three leads who improvised about 75% of their words. Emily Blunt plays Iris, the best friend of Jack (played by Mark Duplass) and the former girlfriend of Jack's brother, who died roughly a year before the movie begins. Jack, who's unemployed, just can't seem to get out of his mourning funk, so Iris encourages him (practically forces him, actually) to spend some time at her father's cabin on an island in Puget Sound. Jack takes her up on the offer and, upon arriving at the remote cabin, finds a houseguest already there. That would be Hannah, Iris' sister (played by Rosemary DeWitt), who is also seeking a little solitude to clear her head after just ending a seven year lesbian relationship. Mix a bottle of tequila with some bad judgement and the pair end up having awkward sex. The following day, Iris unexpectedly shows up, thus setting in motion the complex triangular dynamic that forms the core of the film.
Blunt, DeWitt, and Duplass have an immediate, winning chemistry with each other and they'd better. Aside from its first fifteen or so minutes, the film almost exclusively features just the three actors on screen and most of that time is spent within the four cabin walls, which gives the film a very intimate theatrical feel. DeWitt and Blunt, in particular, find a familiarity and comfort with one another that successfully sells us on their sisterhood, despite the curious fact that Iris has an English accent and Hannah an American one. I loved that Shelton holds off on revealing the reason for the accent discrepancy until well into the film, as the puzzling detail just kind of hangs there in an intriguing and only mildly nagging way. It might seem like an odd creative choice on Shelton's part, but it actually stems from the fact that Rachel Weisz, a Brit, was originally supposed to play Hannah before pulling out at the last minute. DeWitt, usually one of the best things in anything I've ever seen her in (especially her work on Showtime's United States Of Tara), deserves even more credit for her performance, considering the lack of preparation she had before jumping into the movie's lean twelve day shooting schedule. Along with Shelton's work, another major revelation taken from the film is Duplass, who I'd never heard of. He proves more than capable of handling the movie's demanding dramatic material, while also demonstrating a real flair for its comedic requirements via his goofy charm. And it turns out that like his director, Duplass also writes, directs, and produces films with his brother, Jay. Their latest movie, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, premiered at this year's TIFF.
The film's soundtrack deserves special mention. Composed by Vince Smith (who handled all aspects of sound recording and design on this production), it meshes nicely with Shelton's visuals featuring the scenic Pacific Northwest, and his score plays a key role during an extended montage sequence at the end of the movie that has next to no dialogue. The sequence is a bit of a gamble on Shelton's part, but it's nicely put together and doesn't sap the film's momentum as the story comes to its conclusion.
Your Sister's Sister was picked up for distribution at TIFF by IFC Films for a summer 2012 release. Hopefully, a movie this quiet and clever can find an audience amidst the clatter of the studio tentpole offerings. Those who do discover it will be treated to a film that wasn't just the best thing I saw at the festival, but the best film I've seen this year.
Rating: ★★★★

2 comments:

  1. A rare 10 out of 10!! ;-)

    I'll look for this one. Why do these movies take so long to come out after playing at festivals?

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  2. I have heard that I'm too harsh a critic, but occasionally something does knock me on my ass, Gail!

    Many of the movies playing at TIFF or other festivals don't have distribution deals. That's part of the function of the festivals...business gets conducted and deals made. Even still, some movies still take forever to come out after playing at TIFF. A couple of years ago I saw a great doc there called 'It Might Get Loud', which never made it to theatres around the world until over eleven months later. Some of the more obscure movies never even get a North American release.

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