Its title may sound like a riddle, but Lynn Shelton’s semi-improvised three-hander, Your Sister’s Sister, is anything but inscrutable. Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, and Rosemarie DeWitt (a serendipitous last-minute replacement after Rachel Weisz’s departure), Shelton’s film is a simple, beautifully acted comedy drama that lays bare the difficulties and solaces of romantic and sibling love. Explosion and helicopter stunt-hunting filmgoers will want to look elsewhere, because this is small personal drama on a human scale.
Blunt and DeWitt play adoring half-sisters Iris and Hannah, whose relationship is tested when Iris’ best friend Jack (Duplass) spends a drunken night with Hannah at their father’s idyllic island cabin. While the dramatic situation may seem contrived (especially as Hannah’s grieving the end of a seven year same-sex relationship), the performances are nothing but warm, convincingly human, and often very funny.
Jack meets Iris’ sister unexpectedly when he’s sent to her family getaway for some restorative soul-searching a year after the death of his brother, and arrives to find Hannah drowning her break-up sorrows. One bottle of tequila and a comically recognisable sex scene later, the duo have a dilemma on their hands when Iris shows up and reveals her romantic feelings for Jack to her sister.
The story unfurls against a screensaver-pretty backdrop of forest coastline and log cabins, which, if nothing else, is guaranteed to give you holiday home envy. As a director, Shelton has a weakness for coffee-table shots of sunsets and gently lapping shorelines, but it’s her only indulgence in this compact, neatly staged drama. With its naturalistic style, pair of siblings, island holiday home, absent father, and watercolour landscape painting, it’s almost the film 2010’s Archipelago might have been if writer/director Joanna Hogg was more accessible, and crucially, fonder of her characters.
The fourth feature Shelton has written and directed, Your Sister’s Sister is performance-driven and a showcase for its small cast’s obvious talent. Hannah, Jack, and Iris are made hugely likeable thanks to the actors playing them, and Shelton’s obvious affection for the trio. She frames faces closely, lending intimacy to the film’s dialogue (about seventy percent of which is improvised), but never uncomfortably so.
Fellow director Mark Duplass is reliably good both in the comic and soul-baring scenes, as are Blunt and DeWitt, the latter of who exudes the same unusual combination of defencelessness and poise she had as the older sister to Anne Hathaway’s recovering junkie in Rachel Getting Married. Your Sister’s Sister is far less tortured than Jonathan Demme’s family drama, though both are snapshots of grief and our vulnerability to losing the people we love.
In other hands, Shelton’s three characters – a vegan lesbian, a 30-something slacker, and a skinny jeans-wearing Seattle-based Fleet Foxes fan – might have been ripe for acerbic parody, but that’s not her game here. Hannah may deliver lines like “I’m emotionally allergic to butter”, but she’s neither a caricature nor a cliché; instead, like Iris and Jack, she’s blisteringly recognisable and sympathetic. Your Sister’s Sister’s trade isn’t in cheap shots (not that it’s prissy when it comes its sense of humour), but in naturalism and affectionate character-based laughs that combine real emotional drama with recognisable comedy.
The film’s sentimental in the very best sense, in that it’s full of genuine sentiment. Affecting without being cloying, Your Sister’s Sister avoids melodrama or clichéd grand rom-com overtures and instead presents its ultimately comforting relationship story quietly, lovingly and best of all, with a real sense of humour. It’s a treat of a film, and one well worth seeking out.