Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Best Films of 2012: #4

Director Lynn Shelton allowed the cast of "Your Sister's Sister" to improvise much of their dialogue. The result was an unexpected treasure that delighted me with its 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 fawning toast to Tom, 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, 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 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 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 at 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 20 minutes, contains more honesty than most films in their entireties, and is buoyed by a gentle humor and generosity of spirit that inspires a protective goodwill. It's the sort of sequence you watch on emotional tippy-toes, praying the film won't 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 complications. In another exquisite scene, at the end of that second night, Iris, unable to sleep, comes into Hannah's bedroom. There's a deep sisterly bond between the two, but they haven't seen a lot of each other in recent years. Each has her own temperament and her own motivations. Shelton frames the shot with Iris slightly behind Hannah, so that Iris can't 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 has so much going on, you want to re-watch it as soon as it ends. Coming so quickly after the previous impeccable sequence, it's an embarrassment of riches.

Both Blunt and Duplass turn in the finest work of their careers. Blunt shows a vulnerability that's enormously appealing. Duplass, the mumblecore king, brings a certain literal and figurative heft to Jack that's solid and manly and surprisingly sexy. But I'll remember the picture primarily as a coming-out party for Dewitt, a journeyman actor who was finally given a terrific, substantial part, and knocked it out of the park.

On a small budget, Shelton conveys the tranquil beauty of her setting and richly mines the emotional depths of her characters, all while generating big laughs built on authentic and keenly observed situations. It's a high-wire act, and she pulls it off exquisitely.

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