"Your Sister's Sister" a deeply satisfying indie treat

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In the summer, it’s refreshing to see a movie made outside of the Hollywood studio system. No $250-million budget, no superheroes, and no bloated running time — “Your Sister’s Sister” is a small, character-driven, performance-based piece about three characters talking in a cabin. Coming off 2009’s “Humpday,” writer-director Lynn Shelton and mumblecore darling Mark Duplass (who stars) developed a kernel of an idea and backstory for the trio of characters, and then 85% of the film was improvised. While “Humpday” was funny and insightful but ultimately came off as forced naturalism, “Your Sister’s Sister” is Shelton’s most cinematic indie so far. It’s naturally funny, gently moving, and deeply satisfying.

On the one-year anniversary of his brother Tom’s passing, Jack (Mark Duplass) is clearly in a funk when he makes a scene at a eulogy gathering. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who dated Tom, suggests he get away for some “head space” by staying at her dad’s idyllic cabin on an island. There’s no phone or Internet, just idyllic woods and isolation (which sounds like the setup for a horror film). Once he gets there, he’s surprised to find Iris’ sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s there to find peace after leaving a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. After a late night of drinking tequila and talking, things get complicated. And then by morning, Iris drops in.

Like Shelton’s previous effort, “Your Sister’s Sister” has a relaxed, intimate vibe that centers on hyper-real conversations. Shelton gave her actors a lot of room, encouraging them to improvise and allowing them to just react off of one another. But instead of feeling like an actor’s workshop, this three-hander develops a real rooting interest for this entangled trio of characters. The three, receiving special credit as “creative contributors,” are all equal in their naturalism.

Becoming the ubiquitous on-screen everyman as of late (when he’s not directing with his brother Jay), Duplass (who’s used to doing improv) keeps proving he’s more than just a schlub of the week. This might be his most deeply felt performance to date. DeWitt and Blunt, who obviously both come from scripted-film backgrounds, are subtle and emotionally available on their own, and automatically click as sisters (the keeping of Blunt’s British accent is smoothly addressed). They first greet one another as “Bean” and “Puppet,” solidifying their effortless, lovely chemistry and then showing their sisterly bond even more so when Iris crawls into bed next to Hannah for a little chitchat. It’s engaging to just watch and listen to these three complex, appealing people talk.

The production (which took 12 days to shoot) feels like it was summer camp for Shelton, her cast, and crew, and a terrific film came out of it. Though it has a play-like feel and was shot mostly in a cabin, the film never feels cramped and claustrophobic from Bejamin Kasulke’s cinematography. Long takes are nicely balanced by the openness and tranquility of the wild and the water.

Out of most “mumblecore” (or is the bloom off the rose in using that term?) endeavors, “Your Sister’s Sister” is a rare breed. Shelton’s form of do-it-yourself filmmaking is confident without feeling self-indulgent this time. What easily could have slipped into a farcical love-triangle sitcom never rings false. Even when a key development is introduced, the film is always low-key and feels nothing short of authentic, never vilifying or judging any of the characters. The last shot, or ending rather, is ambiguous and just perfect. Even though Jack, Iris, and Hannah seem to be in a better place than how we found them, you’ll hate to see these characters go. No matter how minute the scale of the film, such praise like that rarely gets granted these days.

91 min., rated R.
Grade: A

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