I have a confession to make: I think I'm a mumblecore fan. In theory, it feels like the sort of thing I ought to dislike, as the genre is defined by shapeless plotting, heavy improvisation and a general lack of technical precision. Even so, the key figures of the mumblecore movement continue to produce thoughtful, absorbing, entertaining features marked by fine performances and emotional attentiveness. Time and time again, filmmakers like Mark and Jay Duplass, Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg have delivered lovely little movies that offer real insight into the complexities of human relationships. A prime example is Shelton's 2012 feature Your Sister's Sister, a three-player comedy/drama built around a morally ambiguous occurrence which may or may not result in serious consequences.
Jack (Mark Duplass, Creep) is a single, unemployed slacker who is still grieving the recent loss of his brother Tom. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow) suggests that it might be good for Jack to get away from the world for a while. She invites him to stay at her family's isolated cabin in the woods for a few days, so he can get some quality alone time and pull himself together. Jack takes her up on the offer, but upon arrival makes the surprising discovery that Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) is already staying at the cabin. It seems that Hannah also needed some alone time, as she has just ended a seven-year relationship with another woman.
After some awkward small talk, the two begin drinking together and sharing their assorted woes. The confessions grow increasingly intimate as the alcohol keeps flowing, and eventually Jack admits that he finds Hannah rather attractive. “I can say this because you're a lesbian,” he mutters, “But if I were differently equipped or you were differently inclined, I would totally want to sleep with you.” To Jack's astonishment, Hannah immediately invites him to bed. Their lovemaking is brief and clumsy, and in the morning they both feel more than a little embarrassed. Then, without warning, Iris shows up and decides to join the party.
In one sense, Jack and Hannah haven't done anything wrong. He's single, she's single, and there's no reason they shouldn't have slept together if they both wanted to. However, that's not the full truth of the situation. The truth is that Jack harbors intense feelings for Iris, and his chances of being with her would almost certainly vanish if she knew that he had already slept with her sister. So, Jack begs Hannah not to say anything to Iris; and a tangled web of unnecessarily elaborate cover stories are formed (beginning with Jack pretending that he was our for a morning run when Iris arrived – he pours a ridiculous amount of water on himself in a clumsy attempt to look “sweaty”).
For the bulk of its running time, Your Sister's Sister is funny and cringe-inducing in roughly equal measure; a wicked farce that threatens to turn into a painful drama at any given moment. The three performers play off each other beautifully. Duplass is fidgety and tense, talking endlessly in a vain attempt to mask his discomfort. Blunt is airy and cheerful, happy to see her sister and her pal in the same place and entirely oblivious to the notion that something might have happened between them. DeWitt is quiet and occasionally sarcastic, casually poking various sore spots in her relationship with her sister and contemplating whether she should simply ignore Jack's request and blurt out the truth. Our sympathies continually shift, but Shelton gives all of these characters enough humanity to make us feel for all of them. It's a situation where no one has done anything truly reprehensible, but knowledge of what has been done could still permanently damage important relationships.
Disappointingly, the film starts to lose its deft touch in the final twenty minutes or so, as one character departs for a period of soul-searching (while earnest acoustic guitar music floats across the soundtrack) before returning for a slightly-too-tidy conclusion. It's not an entirely unsatisfying ending (there are still a handful of lovely character moments amidst the convention), but it lacks the spark of the rest of the film. When Shelton is on her game (which is most of the time), Your Sister's Sister is an excellent showcase for three fine actors and a riveting examination of the familiar, exasperating conflicts that exist between love, lust, friendship and responsibility. Viva la mumblecore!
Your Sister's Sister
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
unning Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2012