Saturday, June 16, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” is the best American feature film so far this year, an unexpected small treasure that delights you with its quietly perceptive emotional acuity and pitch-perfect humor.

Shelton opens her film at a small party in Seattle, where friends have gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the untimely death of their college buddy, Tom. One man proposes a toast to Tom that borders on the hagiographic, but Tom’s brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), angrily cuts short the canonization. Before you knew him, Jack tells the gathering, Tom was the bully; he had an epiphany watching “Revenge of the Nerds” and realized he’d get further with girls and in life playing the sensitive, altruistic type. Awkward tension fills the room as a celebration teeters on the edge of disintegration, and Iris (Emily Blunt), the girlfriend who’d left Tom shortly before his death, pulls Jack, her best friend, aside. You haven’t made any progress in a year’s time, Iris tells Jack; this is your intervention.

Her solution is to send Jack on a ferry off to her family’s empty cabin on an island in Puget Sound, where the absence of telephones, fax machines, and the Internet will allow him the time and space she prescribes for his emotional rebirth. Jack agrees, dusts off his red bicycle (by all appearances, he hasn’t spent the year at the gym), and arrives at the cabin, around midnight, only to find Iris’s sister, Hannah (Rosemarie Dewitt), already there and drying herself off rather sexily after a shower.

This leads to an extended sequence that can only be called virtuoso, in which, after taking Jack for an intruder and coming after him using an oar as a makeshift weapon, Hannah lets him in and slowly lets down her guard, helping him kill a bottle of tequila, detailing her own termination of a seven-year relationship – with a woman, and finally, cautiously, suggesting she might be game to get back on an old “bike” of her own. This sequence, which runs for about 15 or 20 minutes, contains more honesty than most films in their entireties, and is buoyed by a gentle humor and generosity of spirit that inspires an almost protective goodwill. It’s the sort of sequence you watch on emotional tippy-toes, praying the film will not step wrong and giddy when it doesn’t. Every word, every glance, every interaction carries the ring of truth.

The next morning, Iris – who’d told Jack she’d be busy all week, and wouldn’t interrupt his alone time in any case – surprises Hannah and Jack by showing up at the cabin. She brings eggs and fresh vegetables – and her own emotional complications. In another exquisite scene, at the end of that second night, Iris, unable to sleep, comes into Hannah’s bedroom. There’s a powerful sisterly bond between the two, but they haven’t seen a lot of each other in recent years. They are different in temperament and have their own motivations. Shelton frames the shot with Iris slightly behind Hannah, such that Iris cannot see Hannah’s face. Iris finally confesses to Hannah that she’s in love with Jack, oblivious to what happened between Hannah and Jack the night before. Have you ever spent a scene going back and forth between two actors’ faces, not wanting to miss the tiniest movement, the slightest registering of emotion? That’s how I felt in this scene, which is so rich and has so much going on, you want to rewind it as soon as it ends. For it to follow so quickly after the previous impeccable sequence is an embarrassment of riches.

My jaw dropped when I learned that much of “Your Sister’s Sister” had been improvised over the course of a two-week shoot. There could be no better testament to the brilliance of Shelton’s cast. Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass have both become oversaturated in the past year or two, but neither has ever done finer work than here. Blunt – who can be too plain-Jane for some leading roles, or too strident in others – shows an emotional vulnerability that is enormously appealing. Duplass, the mumblecore king, brings a certain literal and figurative heft to Jack that’s solid and manly and surprisingly sexy. The picture is nothing short of a coming-out party for Dewitt, who’s worked steadily in Hollywood for the better part of a decade but has finally been served a terrific, substantial part, and has hit it out of the park.

The last half hour of “Your Sister’s Sister” is the weakest. It’s as if everybody realized they had to stop ambling around being authentic and bring the story to some sort of happy ending. I also deeply dislike the trite final scene that ends in uncertainty (the three gather to read the result of Hannah’s pregnancy test, and just as she lifts her arm away, the credits roll). But there’s so much to love in the first 75 minutes, you just have to seek it out. On a shoestring budget, Shelton conveys the tranquil beauty of her setting and richly mines the emotional depths of her characters, all while generating big out-loud laughs built on genuine and keenly observed situations. It’s a high-wire act, and she pulls it off exquisitely.

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