Why do people recoil when someone refers to a film as “talky”? The word has mistakenly been used as a euphemism for boring and static in the movie world for far too long.
Enter mumblecore, a term used to describe a series of low-budget indie films released during the last decade. Titles like Funny Ha Ha and The Puffy Chair revolved around hapless twentysomethings' unremarkable lives and their rambling, often improvised conversations. Well, those chatty slackers, now in their late thirties, still have plenty of stories to tell, and few filmmakers have been as successful at making their voices accessible to a wider audience as Seattle-based triple threat Lynn Shelton.
The actress, writer and director made a splash on the festival scene with the wise and perceptive buddy comedy Humpday, which chronicled a game of oneupmanship between two stubborn straight guys who were roommates in college and, after over a decade apart, agree to enter an amateur porn contest with a movie featuring...themselves. That film's star, ubiquitous everyman Mark Duplass, is once again Shelton's leading man in her followup, the touching domestic dramedy Your Sister's Sister.
How do we know Shelton wears her mumblecore credentials on her sleeve? The film, which is currently showing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, opens, not with images, but with idle chatter which goes on for several seconds before the black screen fades into the first scene. An intimate gathering of loved ones celebrates the life of their friend Tom one year after his untimely passing. Everyone seems to eulogize the man as an amazing human being. Everyone, that is, except Jack (Duplass), who launches into a tirade about his deceased sibling. The word “bully” is bandied about. Awkward silence ensues.
Iris (a radiant Emily Blunt), who was Tom's girlfriend but broke up with him prior to his death, senses Jack has been having a tough time dealing with his brother's loss, and she knows just the ticket to get his life back in order: some quite R & R at her father's cabin on the San Juan Islands. Off he goes, battered bicycle in tow, and his journey to the tucked-away location gives Shelton an excuse to show off the Pacific Northwest's blue-gray landscapes with a painterly eye. Hers is a polished, altogether less meandering brand of mumblecore.
Arriving at night, Jack is surprised to discover the house is not unoccupied. A young woman appears to have made herself at home. Following some cutesy mistaken-identity confusion that belongs more in a sitcom, the woman introduces herself as Hannah (Rachel Getting Married's Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris' sister. The two lonesome strangers share a drink, and then another. Jack opens up about the tailspin his life has been on since Tom died. Hannah admits she came to her father's vacation home to lick her wounds after breaking up with her longtime partner.
And then Tom lays his cards on the table. He knows Hannah's not batting for his team, and this might be the alcohol talking, but he says he finds her undeniably attractive. What happens next is best left undisclosed, though I will say the next few minutes shows Shelton's gift for handling delicate material in the most unvarnished, unflinching way possible. She draws laughs, all right, but they're tinged with an element of uncomfortable truth.
The next morning Iris shows up unannounced, and the free-floating rapport that develops between the three characters has a lived-in flow that feels like plopping down on your favorite couch. When Iris and Jack try to mask how awful Hannah's vegan pancakes are, we feel like we're sitting right next to them and trying to come up with our own fake compliment.
This is what I dig about Shelton's sensibility: She's warm and clear-eyed in just about equal measures...which makes it all the more disappointing that the rest of Your Sister's Sister is so conventional. Once Shelton establishes the central tensions between this neurotic triangle, she comes dangerously close to making the movie come across as your basic multiplex chick flick, albeit one with breathtaking windswept vistas. You feel the weight of the story intrude on the film's stream-of-consciousness spontaneity, something that did not happen in Humpday.
Only a grouch wouldn't want things to work out between these three, though. Despite Your Sister's Sister's third-act problems, it remains a beguiling charmer. Just emphasize the witty, semi-improvised banter over the calculated romantic entanglements next time around, Ms. Shelton.