2011 // USA // Lynn Shelton // June 27, 2012 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
The magnificent, cringe-provoking awkwardness on display in writer-director Lynn Shelton’s 2009 comedy Humpday invited comparisons to mainstream “discomfort comedy” works such as The Office, but the film’s secret weapon was the appealing simplicity of its scenario: What if two straight guys talked themselves into making a gay pornographic film, despite the fact that neither one really wanted to do so? Shelton complicated this high-concept premise with doses of unresolved college-age angst and subtle class envy. She also turned a one-on-one battle of wills into a nasty relationship triangle by adding a third major character, a girlfriend who wobbles between hurt, angry, and baffled in the face of such a nonsensical, sexually confused macho dare. It worked phenomenally better than it had any right to, primarily because Shelton and her performers treated the whole enterprise like a tragicomical high-wire act, studding it with unbearably drawn-out moments of unease, panic, and surrealism.
Shelton leans on a variation on this successful formula in her new feature, Your Sister’s Sister, and once again it pays marvelous dividends. The result is one of the most engaging films of the year thus far, a funny and anguished little tale that commands the viewer’s attention in a manner that no hollow spectacle of digital super-heroics can manage. As in Humpday, there are only three characters that really matter: a man, a woman, and her sister. It’s been one year since unemployed, acerbic Seattleite Jack (Mark Duplass) lost his brother. Jack’s best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) correctly discerns that he still needs to come to terms with the loss and sort out his life. Accordingly, she sends him to her family’s remote cabin on a misty, forest-clad island for some mandated Alone Time.
Unfortunately, Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also holed up in said cabin, attempting to clear her head after the disintegration of a long-term relationship. Jack and Hannah circle one another warily, but soon they are commiserating, downing tequila shots, and making a Big Mistake of a, um… coital nature. Naturally, the next morning Iris drops by for a surprise visit, resulting in lots of surreptitious glances, uncomfortable meals, and whispered conversations. Did I mention that Iris happens to be Jack’s dead brother’s ex? And that Hannah is a lesbian?
Duplass, Blunt, and especially DeWitt are all at the top of their game here, conveying the humanity of their characters without showily painting them with faux-humanizing detail. Vitally, each of the three characters is sympathetic when viewed from the right angle, and yet the performers permit peeks at their more blinkered and selfish tendencies. (Even sweet, generous Iris can be a clueless jerk, it turns out.) Duplass is, as always, a bit of an conundrum as a performer. His manner is agreeable and relaxed, but he possesses the sort of asshole unctuousness that only white guys from the urban Northwest can really achieve. Watching Duplass’ Jack clumsily talk his way into the sack with Hannah—and thereafter tap-dance as fast as he can to conceal this tryst from Iris—is vaguely unpleasant, just as it was unpleasant to watch his character break the news of his impending on-screen gay encounter to his girlfriend in Humpday. It’s a disagreeable spectacle, but also undeniably authentic, and even mesmerizing in an absurd sort of way.
Ultimately, Duplass proves adept at utilizing his demeanor for black comic effect, and whether it is a conscious effort or not, it works phenomenally well in Your Sister’s Sister, bouncing off of Blunt and DeWitt’s more polished styles to create deliriously agonizing comedic moments. Shelton’s script is lean and wonderfully structured, all rising emotional stakes and mounting anxiety. It finely balances its pathos between whispered intimacies and wailing histrionics, creating an emotional terrain that feels much like that of a tearful, vicious, real-world argument. Shelton’s latest feature ultimately proves to be a shamelessly absorbing story of family, relationships, secrecy, and sacrifice.