Hollywood, Hallmark, and our moms and dads have all provided us with pretty concrete ideas of what relationships and families are supposed to look like, even if those models of what to expect and aspire to often fail. It seems like the ideas of "normalcy" these sources supply are so strongly instilled in us that we are deeply shocked and offended when they are toyed with. The controversy over gay marriage, the intrigue around the idea of the ménage a trois, and our view of polygamy or polyamory as deeply perverse are just a few examples of reactions to relationships and family structures that challenge the norm.
The funny thing about Your Sister's Sister (well, there are actually many funny things; it's a very witty little comedy) is that you don't realize that presenting a challenge to the standard structure of love is one of its primary purposes until the film is halfway through.
The story begins in a rustic and candlelit cabin, where a group of thirtysomethings clink beer glasses to the memory of a friend who passed away a year ago. One agitated man in the group interrupts the gush of rosy memories to unapologetically declare that the deceased -- his brother -- was actually a poser, committing a short lifetime of good deeds for the sole purpose of banging more chicks.
This is Jack (Mark Duplass), a burly, dick-driven, unemployed, emotional mess who's used his brother's untimely death as an excuse for his own dysfunction for the last year. After his outburst, Jack's best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), a sweet, moon-eyed brunette with a lilting British accent, comes to console him and to mandate a healing retreat: She prescribes a week at her parents' place on a remote island. He agrees and takes his bicycle out to the ferry the next day, pedaling up the wooded drive and arriving at the house after dark.
The thing is, he's not alone. Unbeknownst to anyone, Iris' half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt of Mad Men fame), having just suffered a jarring breakup, has decided to take an emotional sabbatical of her own, and the two get to know each other rather quickly -- and intimately -- over a bottle of tequila. When Iris shows up unannounced the next morning, Jack and Hannah scramble to mask their impromptu encounter, doing their best to appear casual over plates of Hannah's awful vegan pancakes. But soon Iris brings a new secret to add to the mix, and the trio must tiptoe around each other, messily withholding several pieces of emotionally charged information until it all explodes in a world of hurt.
The rebound from all this turmoil is slow and mostly wordless, achieved through a montage that indicates several days of cooling off. This works, at least in part, because the backdrop for this action is so incredibly gorgeous. Misty skies separate towering pines that lean around the edges of the secluded home. Lush foliage and walks through untouched, scenic land are enough to make any nature lover long for a woodsy retreat of his own.
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Another remarkable aspect of this film is the fact that most of the dialog is improvised -- and it's done well. This gives the character interactions a natural feel that leaves the viewer eagerly anticipating every next word. It's a bonus that the actors, especially Duplass, are wonderfully quick-witted.
The ending may leave some unsatisfied and others in disbelief, but whatever your take, it's hard to deny that it is thought-provoking and even a little bold. Director Lynn Shelton has given us a modern American romance that defies clichés and gives us hope for the beauty and flexibility of the human capacity to love.
The film runs June 22 to 28 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Tickets cost $11.