One of the most valid critiques of the mumblecore movement is that its stories lack universality — that they speak specifically to hipster audiences in their late 20s and early 30s who share a sense of directionless-ness with the characters, as if said characters have nothing in common with any other demographic. The major exception to this rule has long been the Duplass Brothers, who not only make films that are more accessible than those of their cohorts, but also tackle a broader sampling of characters (Marisa Tomei and Susan Sarandon, for instance, played integral roles in “Cyrus” and “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” respectively). It would appear that Duplass-collaborator Lynn Shelton now also realizes the benefits of casting a wider net, because her latest effort, “Your Sister’s Sister,” is easily the most grown-up mumblecore movie ever made.
That’s not to say that Shelton has sacrificed any of the key thematic or stylistic hallmarks of the movement. “Your Sister’s Sister” deals with three Seattle 30-somethings who could easily be characterized as directionless, each exhibiting a teenage-level understanding of relationships. And despite the presence of a major movie star (Emily Blunt) in one of the lead roles, the film’s aesthetic is as DIY as those of even the lowest-budget mumblecore productions, born of a handheld camera and natural lighting. In essence, Shelton, like the Duplasses before her, has taken the organic spirit of the filmmaking style and applied it to a story that is less exclusionary and experimental than those of directors like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg.
Ninety percent of “Your Sister’s Sister” takes place in an idyllic coastal cabin owned by Iris’ (Blunt’s) family. She sends the angst-ridden Jack (Mark Duplass), brother to her late boyfriend, there to decompress alone. As fate would have it, Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) turns out to have made the exact same plans for herself, having just gotten out of a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. They make the best of the situation and, despite Hannah’s sexual orientation, have drunken sex. Things get complicated when Iris shows up for the weekend unannounced and reveals to Hannah that she’s secretly in love with Jack, a revelation that makes for one of the richest movie love-triangles in some time.
Given that “Your Sister’s Sister” is entirely dialogue-driven and has only one major setting, the acting is obviously integral to its success. But Shelton’s thoughtful screenplay lays the foundation. The movie is, at its heart, an examination of the ways that humans withhold things from one another and the profound effect that this has on our relationships. When grief is at play–Iris and Jack mourn the one-year anniversary of their mutual loss and Hannah does the same over her ill-fated romance–our tendency to withhold is multiplied. The movie thus asks the question: Are the experiences that the three characters have with one another genuine, given that they are experienced without 100 percent knowledge of the other’s internal motivations and feelings? For instance, when Iris confides in Hannah that she is in love with Jack (a secret she keeps due to the social taboo of starting a relationship with her dead boyfriend’s brother), everything changes in an instant. Suddenly, Jack and Hannah’s innocent fling seems like the ultimate betrayal.
Back to the acting. It’s a testament to Emily Blunt’s abilities that she disappears into her character and never seems out-of-place in such a micro-budget production, despite her A-list status. The mumblecore movement has always prided itself on naturalism and Blunt fits right in with this approach. The same could be said for DeWitt, who also has some disappearing to do in light of her own rising stardom in the independent film and television worlds. It would have been easy to turn her character into a cartoon, given her sexuality and rampant veganism, or a villain, due third-act revelations of deception. But DeWitt sees through Shelton’s complex, humanist vision for Hannah perfectly, without an ounce of caricature.
And yet, as strong as the two ladies are, Duplass is the real show-stopper, balancing emotional heft and comedic relief. For years, the general attitude toward Duplass has been that he’s a competent performer who stars in friends’ movies to save them money. But between this movie and the delightful “Safety Not Guaranteed,” he has proven himself to be a truly great actor, with the skill required to carry the torch for mumblecore and demonstrate that it is capable of being as legitimate as any other style of filmmaking. The same could be said of “Your Sister’s Sister” on the whole.