Hers and Hers and His, by Scott Nye
Your Sister’s Sister is a good example of why I’ve come to regard films as a whole more than the sum of several disparate parts. The parts of this film are good. Hell, they’re often amazing. Three-quarters of this film, in fact, are the kind of perfectly-calibrated, yet still loosely improvised, drama one would expect from the filmmaker who brought structure to mumblecore (or vice versa) in 2009’s stellar Humpday. And then, suddenly, things fall apart, and the whole begins to crumble as writer/director Lynn Shelton and her incredible cast suddenly have nothing left for any of these people to do.
As such, it’s a difficult film to discuss without intensely discussing the late second-act dilemma and the total shrug of a third act, but we can certainly say the set-up is extraordinary. Mark Duplass stars Jack, a familiar low-budget, character-focused film archetype. He’s distraught over the death of his brother, who was well-regarded in the community but not in Jack’s heart. His friend, and former girlfriend of the deceased, Iris (Emily Blunt), suggests he take a break from it all and head up to a remote cabin her family owns. They have an easy banter that suggests some feelings that have not yet been addressed. When he arrives, he’s surprised to find another woman, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt, familiar to savvy culture consumers as Midge on Mad Men), who turns out to be Iris’ sister, and has just as much a right to be there as he. Rather than contest the issue, they bond over a long night of drinking, during which she reveals a recent break-up with her domineering girlfriend. One things lead to another, and whatya know, they sleep together.
People make mistakes, naturally, but the ability to assess such mistakes is considerably diminished when Iris comes up to the cabin to surprise Jack, and is in turn surprised by Hannah. The second act is when the film is really cooking, operating on near-farcical levels while staying remarkably grounded, letting Three’s Company-esque hijinks coexist, and in fact inform, purposeful character development. It’s some of the most adept, nimble, entertaining and involving drama you’re likely to find on screens this or any other year. Shelton’s cinema unmistakably fits in with the self-obsessed mumblecore crowd, but she makes films for an audience. I don’t fault the other route, but Shelton is extraordinary in how she funnels an improvisatory setting into a structured piece, making it seem, as Robert Altman often did, as though all of this was planned.
It’s sort of trite to say Shelton’s characters are united in that they’re “searching” and bonded by recent upheavals, but it’s the way each of them filters conflict that makes for such compelling drama. Jack is aggressively neurotic, blurting out his brother’s negative traits amidst his wake, almost violently pulling Hannah aside during every spare moment to make sure they have their stories straight. Iris is warm and receptive, quietly longing for some fundamental changes but unsure of how to instigate them. And Hannah, well, she’s more than willing to roll with the punches, and sometimes surprised when others can’t do the same when she delivers some fairly major blows. With characters this well defined trapped in an isolated setting, it’s no wonder things are as good as they are for as long as they are. What is a wonder is how Shelton and her company let things become so hopelessly defeated.
While they manage to resolve all the relationships in an immensely satisfying, coherent way, Shelton leaves the end of the second act with one major decision to be made and no conflict left to explore. I don’t want to discuss this section too much in detail, what with it coming at the end and all, but the film loses all of its momentum here and gains nothing in its contemplation. I thoroughly loved so much of this film. Shelton had me totally in her grip, and the three leads are so perfectly tuned to their characters and one another, there seemed to be no separation between our world and theirs. But I can’t say I really loved the film.
I really liked this movie a lot, but I completely agree with your assessment that the third act is a “shrug”. As I left the theater and older gentleman in front of me turned to his wife and said, “That ending was such a cop out”. I had to admit I agreed with him despite how much I had enjoyed the film. Great review!