Mark Duplass has been a champion of young filmmakers and their low-budget films for a few years now, and, over the last two years, he has become synonymous with homegrown filmmaking. He was featured in the surprisingly tender Humpday, another Lynn Shelton film, and followed that role with Safety Not Guaranteed, a film in which he seemed to have starred in to make sure it even got made. In his interview with Marc Maron on the podcast WTF, Duplass talked about his love for on-the-fly filmmaking and his fascination with documentaries. He confessed to having more affection for documentaries than he’d ever had for narrative films, and that shows not only in his own directorial work, but in the work he endorses as well.
In Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s theatrical follow-up to Humpday, we’re treated to a slightly-more-polished style of filmmaking than Humpday, featuring sharper camera-work and a more cinematic eye. It helps that the film features beautiful movie stars in Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt, who each deliver performances with powerful subtlety and nuance as two half-sisters. Duplass also stars, playing an unemployed thirty-something who is still mourning the death of his brother from the previous year. Duplass plays the role with bored melancholy, living his life as if he, soon, will also die without much consequence.
Emily Blunt’s Iris, a woman whose facade of placidity is far weaker than she believes, had recently dumped Jack (Duplass) ‘s brother when he died, and she and Jack have formed a bond in the wake of his absence. The film opens with the two of them attending a one-year memorial for Jack’s brother in which Jack has obviously had too much to drink. Worried, Iris urges Jack to head to her parent’s lake house in a rural area and sober up.
However, once Jack arrives at the house, he realizes that Iris’s sister, Hannah, is also at the house, trying to get over a bad breakup. The two bond over shared grief, get extremely drunk, and sleep together without considering the consequences (more or less). The next morning, Iris, who is in love with Jack, decides to surprise them by coming to the house. What follows is three very awkward days in the lives of three well-defined and beautifully drawn characters.
These kinds of stories are hard to write well. We’ve seen so many “Don’t let her know!” stories that we know the beats. We are certain there will be a scene where she finds out, cries, yells, and kicks somebody out of her life. We know there has to be a montage where they’re alone and unhappy. We know there’ll be funny gags where everybody is trying to keep secrets and act silly. It’s part of the structure of these stories. They’re ingrained in us.
When I realized this movie had this story, I was prepared to be bored by the familiar beats of the plot, but I was, instead, constantly surprised by Shelton’s focus on conversation, silence, and realistic emotional responses. Most of the movie is broken up into three extended conversations that go on for several minutes and feel, at times, awkwardly realistic.
By focusing on extended scenes of dialogue, the characters come alive like few others in this genre. We understand their motivations. We see how much they care about each other. We can see the chemistry, or lack thereof, based upon the context of the moment.
In other words, Shelton makes all of this look easy, when it’s actually one of the hardest things to do in filmmaking. She films people sitting quietly together. Sometimes the conversations lull and meander. And it never feels boring, or forced, or amateur. It’s focused and sharp and alive. Duplass isn’t playing an innocent man-child who has to grow up. He plays a man crippled by his own grief. Rosemarie DeWitt doesn’t play a promiscuous seductress. She’s a woman distraught by her recent emotional severance. She cares deeply for her sister, and it shows in every scene.
This is a film held up by its great performances and its mature writing. It’s a character study that goes out of its way to show us its subjects from every angle, and most of those angles aren’t particularly pleasant.