Script? What script? We don’t need no stinking scripts here!
Directed by Lynn Shelton and filmed mostly in the San-Juan Islands which are northwest of Seattle, off the coast of Washington State in the Pacific Northwest, this film, called Your Sister’s Sister, is a simple tale of three people – each of whom are in the midst of some of life’s disconnects. One man, let’s call him A for the moment, is sent off to a lonely island cabin, to commune with nature, and take joy in the solitude offered by the place’s remote location by B. When he arrives, he will find that the place is already occupied by C, who as it happens, is B’s sister.
A, is Jack and is played by Mark Duplass. He’s lost his brother prior to the film’s opening. A year later he’ s still in a funk. His brother’s ex-girl friend Iris, whom we designated as B, is played by the delightful Emily Blunt. Following the brother’s death, Iris and Jack have a rather close relationship that has grown into, well… a rather close adult relationship that it is strictly platonic. Iris, seeking to help Jack get back on his feet spiritually and to ease his anguish, suggests that he get away from it all, and to do this, he should spend a week in her father’s island getaway. Time and distance should help heal all wounds was the thought.
The aforementioned C is Hannah and that role is played by Rosemary DeWitt who came to the project late after a scheduling conflict arose. Originally, the casting of the role had gone to Rachel Weisz. Now Hannah has fled to Dad’s cabin because she too is in need of solitude, meditation, and the restorative and healing powers that this cabin retreat offered. She’s just gone through the painful break up of a seven-year long lesbian relationship.
First of all, Jack didn’t know that Hannah would be there. Second, Hannah didn’t know that Jack would be arriving there. And third, neither of them knew that Iris would be arriving there, the very next morning.
And that dear readers, is all the set up you get from me this time.
This is a very small film with just three main characters, and only a few small speaking parts besides the principals. Lynn Shelton has made this indie feature on an exceedingly small budget, and was no doubt helped by the three main actors who took on the roles in order to put their acting chops on display, and likely offered their services for mere pennies on the dollar compared to their standard numbers. To give you another idea of the size of the film – it was shot in a mere twelve days. Another fact about the film is that Lynn Shelton did not spend a lot of time in showing us the wondrous landscapes of the San Juan Islands which was where they shot the film. We had only a few fleeting glimpses of the woodlands, the coast and the Anacortes ferries. which ply the routes to the islands. I’ve ridden on the Washington State Ferries departing out of Seattle, to Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, but not those departing from Anacortes. Which means I’m familiar with the ferries – we do get a fleeting glimpse of them – if not the San Juan islands themselves.
I understand that Shelton spent quite some time with Duplass, Blunt, and DeWitt working out the back stories of the characters. Meaning those details weren’t in the script. The result is that much of the dialogues that we do watch are improvisational – as in Blunt, Duplass, and DeWitt creating the dialogues from within themselves as the characters. In short, employing their best ‘method acting’ skills.
Their world or the setting of the film is not claustrophobic in the usual physical sense. Instead it is a trio of characters that have very little space between them in the theoretic sense. Blunt’s Iris and DeWitt’s Hannah are sisters – half sisters actually, but that seemed to be a necessary creation to explain how one sister spoke and sounded British and the other spoke and sounded American. It’s neither here nor there in the overall picture – but I mention it in case you wonder about it.
Between them is Mark Duplass as the hapless Jack. While you can’t quite label him a bad guy or a shit – he’s far from a likable character. He’s also no woman’s concept of ideal. Duplass/Jack tries hard – not so much to raise his game and become a likable character, but rather to raise his game and remain a semi-lost cause, a member of the walking dead, a man with little or no style, an ineffectual lover, and he’s not good at anything. He likes wallowing in his depression in the aftermath of his brother’s death because a) he can, and b) he can now speak about his brother negatively as his brother is no longer present to offer an opposing point of view.
Let’s create a mental image of the three main characters in one setting. Jack is on the left hand side of the see-saw. Even though he’s the male, and is literally between the two female characters in the film’s narrative, he’s not getting set up in the middle of my diagram. Over on the other side of the see-saw is Hannah.
Hannah is not quite the female Jack, but she’s a lot closer to him than you might think. Hannah has been in a long-term lesbian relationship for seven years. She is the one who has just broken it off and left. It seems that her lover/partner whom we do not meet, has been taking other women as lovers, not only doing it, but doing it brazenly as if to say I don’t care if you know, I don’t care if you like it or not, leave or stay – it’s up to you. So Hannah stayed and bore the heavyweight load of watching her own relationship fall apart day-by-day. Until she could no longer handle it any more; so she split and made her way to the cabin – to get away from it, to leave it behind, and to be alone with the thought that her recovery would come at some point, it would be a day-to-day thing – but when would it come exactly? She not only had no clue, she didn’t much care either.
Into this setting Jack stumbles. Both literally and figuratively. After the initial awkwardness graduates up to Hannah being pretty much indifferent to Jack, it will go up another level or two or three driven by an engine called tequila.
The following morning, Emily Blunt’s Iris arrives. Emily is the fulcrum of the see-saw. From the outside, she appears to be the least damaged person, she’s the one in the best shape, and that’s why I’ve placed her into the setting as the fulcrum. But she’s imprisoned not by loss (she broke up with Tom, Jack’s brother way before he died), but by her own inertia and reticence.
Upon Emily/Iris’s s arrival, we get that the awkwardness is compounded exponentially for two of them, Jack and Hannah, until Iris catches up; then the awkwardness rockets right off the charts.
There’s your film. Shelton guides us through the morass created by these three flawed characters. We can’t hate any of them. That’s a credit to the three leads who have created this small world that we have been drawn into. The film is driven by dialogue (yes even without a full-fledged script). Not all that much happens – but when reality appears in the midst of these people, the pay-off is richer than you may have thought or expected.
Mind you, I’m not calling Your Sister’s Sister a gem by any means. But it is a provocative think piece. Because of its small stature, we get caught between the parties involved. We have no room to maneuver or to escape to. Those awkward moments have enmeshed us as well as the characters. There is some joy in that for any film-goer because the usual distance between the film’s characters and ourselves has been halved, or quartered .
This is not a rom/com. Nor is it, strictly speaking, a heavily dramatic piece of film either. Shelton does a few things not seen often – one being a longish 17 minute montage with no spoken words. She changes brooding and sulking, simmering and suffering, and contemplating and healing into something visual and uplifting rather than just delivering another body blow to the audience. And the ending is of the ‘Use your own imagination. I’m not doing it for you. Make one up yourself that you can live with.’ Some will call this open-ended, others might view it as unfinished or incomplete. Your call.
My call is three-point two five on the one to five scale. Check out the trailer right below.