September 14, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “Your Sister’s Sister”


Lynn Shelton’s Humpday in 2009 was one of the most engaging pictures to come out of the mumblecore movement (“mumblecore,” for the uninitiated = ultra-low-budget, small scale film with dialogue mostly improvised by the actors), and her new film YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last night, confirms that she’s probably the most mainstream (that’s not an insult) of the subgenre’s practitioners.

Shelton, more than most of the mumblecore filmmakers, seems to be trying to find a middle ground between pure indie and popular moviemaking (after Humpday, she directed an episode of Mad Men, which with Matthew Weiner’s iron-bound control over every detail, had to be a very different kind of experience).  The premise of Your Sister’s Sister is commercial enough to be a mainstream comedy:  Jack (Mark Duplass, himself a mumblecore auteur with fine pictures like The Puffy Chair and Cyrus to his credit) is still trying to get over the loss of his brother a year before.  His brother’s longtime love Iris (Emily Blunt) is Jack’s best friend, and she lends him her family’s cabin so he can have some alone time for introspection.  When he gets there, though, he finds Iris’ half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) there–she’s a vegan lesbian who’s just broken up with her own longtime lover.  The two are vulnerable, increasingly drunk, and… well, what you’d expect happens.  The next one to show up unexpectedly, of course, is Iris, and now the three are all hiding huge secrets from each other.  
The mumblecore technique of long, improvisatory takes which are then edited into a coherent story can yield moments of startling reality, but often the films are also meandering and unfocused.  Your Sister’s Sister, though, is bright and witty from the start (a hilarious scene where Jack disrupts the 1-year memorial gathering for his brother).  Duplass’s expertise with this isn’t a surprise, considering his loads of experience, but Blunt and DeWitt are better known for their scripted abilities, and they manage the new challenge wonderfully; the scenes of the two sisters together, especially, are filled with believably intimate moments.
For any good film produced in this style, the editor is worthy of special praise, and here that belongs to Nat Sanders, who also did Humpday, as well as the excellent The Freebie, with Duplass’s wife Katie Aselton behind the camera.  (A literal parenthetical note:  The League, FX’s comedy about a group of friends in a fantasy football league, stars Duplass and Aselton and may be the most underappreciated comedy on TV.)  The photography by Benjamin Kasulke (also a Freebie/Humpday veteran) is quite handsome for the tiny budget these pictures permit.  Ultimately, though, this is Shelton’s show, and as she did in Humpday, she manages to take a contrived situation and treat it with great humanity and appreciation for detail, while not ignoring the opportunity for big laughs.  
Your Sister’s Sister isn’t going to do Bridesmaids business, and it moves at a pace that some audiences may find careful, but it’s a funny, satisfying comedy-drama that’s true to its process while delivering entertainment to a group larger than the people who made it.  It’s one of the festival’s pleasant surprises.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."