The first mortifying moment in Your Sister’s Sister is the opening scene. At a get-together marking the first anniversary of his brother’s death, Jack (Mark Duplass), a shaggy-haired junior academic type, fumbles the eulogies badly by reminding the assembled group about all the hidden jerky sides of his brother. Iris (Emily Blunt), an old friend and the dead brother’s one-time girlfriend, decides it’s time for an intervention. Jack, who has been over-drinking, underworking and generally messing up, has just made a career faux pas and obviously needs help. She suggests Jack take his red 10-speed bike, cycle to the ferry and go to an island on Seattle’s Puget Sound, where her family has a cottage. “No TV, no Internet,” she says. “Just you.”
Well, not quite. The cabin turns out to be inhabited by Iris's sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just got out of a seven-year relationship with her two-timing lesbian lover, and is nursing her wounds with a bottle of tequila. After the first awkward encounter, Jack and Hannah become drinking buddies, and you get the sense that Jack, though not a conventional hunk, has a self-deprecating seductive charm, which leads to another embarrassing moment. The next morning, when Iris unexpectedly shows up with groceries for Jack, a whole new set of embarrassing moments is set in motion, with whispers, secrets and complicating developments. It’s like a Marivaux farce, with a Pacific Northwest alt-rock sensibility, where people dress in vintage T-shirts and talk about finding some “headspace.”
Seattle-based director Lynn Shelton is highly skillful at placing attractive characters in really awkward social situations, as she proved in her breakthrough Humpday, which is about a couple of straight buddies who do a gay porno “art project” together on a macho dare. Comparatively, Your Sister’s Sister is more conventional, though most of it feels fresh. Shelton uses a structured improvisation method that allows the actors, on a moment-by-moment basis, to talk as if they’re thinking aloud.
The script explains why one sister (Blunt) has an English accent, while the other (DeWitt) is American (same dad, different mothers in different cities) though gets a little fuzzy on their unusually tight bond. But apparently they’re close enough for some sisterly passive-aggression, such as when Hannah brings up a humiliating story about one of Iris’s offensive former boyfriends, or Iris slips butter into the vegan Hannah’s mashed potatoes. As long as everyone is making meals and sharing walks, keeping secrets or spilling late-night confessions, the film’s tone is affectionate and often funny.
On the downside, the characters can also sound as though they are issuing updates on their emotional weather.
“I’m a really bad person” declares Hannah, around the point that Your Sister’s Sister begins to lose its way.
DeWitt (who played Rachel in Rachel Getting Married) offers the most affecting performance here, with a brittle vulnerability that is more complex than either Duplass’s good-natured Jack or the ever-bubbly Iris. Unfortunately, her performance has to transcend a clichéd character (a vegan, lesbian, frustrated painter) whose behaviour pushes the second act into a preposterous turn. Where the film’s best scenes are all about talk, the final third degenerates into soul-searching montages with sensitive music. Where many of the film’s best scenes are memorably squirm-inducing, the ending feels simply squishy and familiar.