Your Sister's Sister, the fourth feature from Seattle-based writer/director Lynn Shelton, might not look like much on the surface. It covers only 90 minutes and — outside of an opening scene and a few stray moments near the end — depicts three characters in one location. But this spare, talky, low-budget feature about familiar types — liberal, educated, thirtysomething urbanites — is a graceful farce that blends screwball comedy with indie relationship drama.
This ostensible love triangle is actually about two pairs of siblings, with the missing member of the quartet established in a doozy of an opening scene, where a group is gathered to remember a fallen friend. The departed's brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), hangs back in silent disapproval, listening to newer friends offer praise before spoiling the occasion with an awkward, angry speech ("If we're going to toast the man, let's toast the man"). Afterward, the brother's ex, Iris (Emily Blunt, whose sour charisma has enlivened many lesser movies in recent years), intervenes, sending Jack to her family's empty cabin for a break.
At the cabin, Jack finds Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt, standing out in her best film role since her title turn in 2008's Rachel Getting Married), commemorating the sudden end to a long-term relationship via a bottle of tequila. Hannah is Iris' older half-sister, and she and Jack spend the night drinking and talking and falling into bed together. The next morning, Iris unexpectedly shows up.
Each of these three characters is, at one time or another, harboring a secret from one or both of the others, and every conversation is also a silent negotiation, with characters trying to figure out just how much they should really say. Shelton elegantly orchestrates scenes where two characters have conversations in which the audience can see both of their faces but they can't see each other's. The first of these, with Iris and Hannah talking in bed together, is one of the most tender and tenuous film moments of the year. Eventually, secrets begin to unravel in a series of cascading revelations.
Like Shelton's previous feature, Hump Day, in which Duplass and Joshua Leonard play a pair of hetero buddies who somehow decide to make an amateur porn film together as a kind of dare, Your Sister's Sister takes an unlikely, high-concept set-up and applies rough, real edges to it, without denying the conceit's comic pleasures. Shelton was associated with the so-called mumblecore scene initially, but she was always more than that. And her work has grown in a way that retains the best of that genre's intimacy while side-stepping its problems almost completely. (That "almost" is reserved for a listless indie-strum montage deployed when the film can't quite figure out how to transition from climax to finale.)
These characters are relatable, but Shelton and her cast don't put their thumbs on the scale to make them too likable. Generous but without any unearned optimism, Shelton's sleeper gem depicts a world where everybody has their reasons. Even when people do terrible things — which includes off-screen characters who do the protagonists wrong — they are treated with fairness and empathy.
Your Sister's Sister
Opening Friday, August 24th
Studio on the Square