Toronto 2011 Review: ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

Tim Grierson
The Projector
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With her new film, "Your Sister's Sister," writer-director Lynn Shelton proves that as with her last movie, "Humpday," she's a superb chronicler of nuanced, intelligent 30-somethings trying to figure out their lives. But where her previous film focused on the challenge of marriage and male friendship, her new comedy-drama examines the bonds of sisterhood and the grieving process. It's a little bit slicker than "Humpday" and a little less accomplished, but once again you'll fall in love with her characters.

At first, "Your Sister's Sister" seems to be about Jack (Mark Duplass), an amiable, underemployed Seattle dude still not over the death of his brother a year ago. Fearing that he's adrift, his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) suggests he get out of town to her lakeside cabin so he can have some time for seclusion and contemplation. But once he gets there, he realizes he won't be alone: Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris' lesbian sister he's never met has decided to hang out there in the wake of ending a seven-year relationship. After a  night of drinking and bonding, Hannah and Jack hook up awkwardly, and when Iris shows up the next day as a surprise, Jack convinces Hannah not to tell her sister.

As with "Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister" utilizes an intimate, occasionally improvisational style, although it appears that Shelton had a slightly bigger budget for her new film since the image quality this time around doesn't look so rough. But that polished feel extends to the film as a whole, which boasts a starrier cast and a somewhat more conventional story. At its core, "Your Sister's Sister" is a comedy of secrets in which Jack has to keep Iris from finding out about his sexual dalliance with Hannah. But there are deeper emotions at play as well: Commitment-phobic Iris briefly dated Jack's dead brother, which complicates his feelings about her. Additionally, each of the characters is keeping something from the other two, and you can bet all three secrets will come out before the movie ends.

All three leads are terrific, particularly Blunt and DeWitt as the sisters who share a strong kinship that feels instantly natural and warm. Duplass is still perhaps best known as half of the Duplass brothers directing team ("Cyrus," the Toronto entry "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), but he's acted in everything from "Humpday" to the FX series "The League." His specialty is sensitive, overgrown manchildren, and he holds his own against his more seasoned castmates.

While the movie's secrets and confessions are involving, "Your Sister's Sister" is so good because of its conversations. Whether it's the late-night bonding session between Jack and Hannah or the sisters' chats about matters of the heart, there's a piercing, refreshing realness to the dialogue that lacks mannerism or gimmick. "Humpday" made the possibility of two straight men considering making a porno together surprisingly plausible, and while there's little as overtly shocking in "Your Sister's Sister," it's again a compliment to Shelton's writing and handling of actors that her movie is so effortlessly lifelike, funny and moving.

If there's a complaint to be made -- and, sadly, there is -- it's that Shelton builds to a plot twist that feels needlessly "surprising," throwing off the rhythms of this realistic story and tipping the finale toward melodrama. Thankfully for Shelton, by that point we've come to love these unique, lovably flawed characters enough to stay with the tonal shift. Additionally, while "Humpday" found a way to resolve its high-wire premise in a believable, satisfying way, "Your Sister's Sister" seems less certain in its final stretch, opting for a pat conclusion that doesn't quite live up to what's come before. But these are minor criticisms. This is a sweet, affecting movie filled with people you'd probably like if you met them in real life. I just wouldn't advise dating any of them. They've got issues.

Grade: B+