Monday, July 9, 2012

"Your Sister’s Sister": Imagine Ingmar Bergman Hooking Up with "Friends"

     Lynn Shelton’s first movie Hump Day was small, elegantly structured, but with a raunchy edge.  The plot revolved around two best straight guy friends – one married, the other single – who decided to enter Seattle’s underground newspaper The Stranger’s annual amateur porn contest by filming themselves having sex.  The third major character is the married guy’s wife and her reaction to the whole plan is the linchpin for the delicate sensibility that Shelton expresses.

Dexter Enjoys the Northwest Landscape
     Your Sister’s Sister is the second excellent movie I’ve seen this year in a cinema (the other one was The Kid with the Bike).  Visually, this is beautiful because of the Washington state exteriors and the island cabin that serves as the main setting.  Its palette focuses on earth tones and I kept
wondering when we’d see a primary color.  When we did, it was muted, but it came just as a major plot complication was occurring.  It was almost subliminal, but it was executed with purpose.  This tension is a hallmark of Shelton’s style.  The plot structure is a classic farce, but with loose, shambling timing based on improvisation and, because of this, the audience responds to the characters’ emotional depths.  

    Shelton trusts actors to realize contradictory qualities in quicksilver glimmers.  I don’t know her exact method, but she relies on improvisation to such an extent that the four main actors were listed as consultants.  However, unlike Mike Leigh, Shelton works extremely quickly.  Hump Day was shot in about two weeks.  I don’t think this shoot was that much greater because I heard Shelton on Fresh Air and she had to move quickly to replace one actor who had to drop out with another actor; she also cast a major actor, whose schedule must be very tight because she’s been in more good movies over the past three years than practically any other performer.

Rosemarie Dewitt and Emily Blunt
     The actors to whom I’m referring, respectively, are Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt who deliver gorgeous performances as half-sisters Hannah and Iris.  The plot set-up is again simple, but rife with complications:  Iris invites her best friend Jack, still overcoming the loss of his younger brother a year earlier, to spend some time at her father’s isolated cabin.   Iris is also the ex-girlfriend of that deceased brother.  Jack, played by Mark Duplass in a performance seems to come out of his pores, bikes up to the cabin and finds that Hannah, whom he’s heard about yet never met, has also decided to spend some time there because of a wrenching break-up.  The two of them get drunk and then the fun, and the heartbreak begins.

The Plot Changing Encounter

     Your Sister’s Sister feels like an update of a ‘70s comedy that would have been a critical and commercial success because of its subject matter and its trio of stars.  Duplass starred in Hump Day and he’s also starred in FX’s The League, but he’s been a writer, producer, and director (most notably Cyrus) for a dozen years.  He has a very different essence for a contemporary American male movie actor because he seems physically big with intimidating features – especially his eyes that could be Slavic or Native American – yet he’s almost transparent emotionally and his vulnerability and insecurity are both rending and funny.  He reminds me of Gene Hackman in some of his more offbeat roles.  DeWitt is direct and seemingly stable as a performer and that how she lulls in viewers before revealing the needs and the ambiguous motivations of her characters.  She almost stopped Mad Men in its first season tracks as Don’s Greenwich Village bohemian girlfriend, who went seriously off the rails when she reappeared four years later and she was the calm eye of the emotional family storm that was Rachel Getting Married.  Her eyes and manner are in a direct line to the young Jane Alexander and I hope she accesses the same opportunities.  Blunt is blithe, intelligent, committed, and spot-on.  As I’ve said before, she can act with anyone and blend right in.  Although she can use an American accent, as in Sunshine Cleaning, the improvisational basis for this movie is the reason I think that Iris and Hannah are half-sisters, born of different mothers – one English and one American.  There wasn’t a written script where she could have practiced the vowels needing a northwest coast accent.  Blunt is taller than DeWitt, though this isn’t notable except for some scenes where they walk together, and it makes subliminal sense because the younger Iris is actually the moral center of the movie.  Blunt seems like the emotional and artistic offspring of Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie, and Vanessa Redgrave.  She immediately integrates into this ensemble as if they’d known each other for years and yet it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her.

     I don’t want to say much about the plot, but it’s daring and completely reflective of contemporary concerns about love, sex, success, and family values.  It’s an almost exquisite miniature in which the viewer searches and finds further detail.  The ending, which also seems shaggy, is anything but and that’s also purposeful.  Ann and many other viewers at the matinee we attended stayed through the end credits for just another glimpse of characters that they didn’t want to leave.  In a more perfect movie universe, this would be playing beyond the Mariemont Theatre and it would receive the media attention that artistically lesser, but hugely more expensive, movies demand.

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