Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The three thirds of Your Sister's Sister

There are a ton of titles on my list of movies to rewatch, but Your Sister's Sister made it to the top Tuesday night because a) I'd found it in the library and been unable to resist picking it up, and b) after I closed off my 2012 rankings, I secretly doubted that I really liked Lynn Shelton's movie enough to rank it #2 for the year.

Part of that doubt crept in because I started to hear people say they didn't like where it goes in the final half-hour. That's when things become quite complicated and emotional, and it's apparently the point that the movie lost some of its previously contented audience.

First off, I'll end the suspense and say that I liked Your Sister's Sister pretty much the same amount the second time as I did the first. Good on me for seeing things straight the first time.

Secondly, I think I figured out an unconventional way to spin Your Sister's Sister, one that may help that problematic third portion sit better with people. So now it's time for my third SPOILER ALERT in as many posts.

Instead of balking at the tonal shift of the third act, people should realize that Your Sister's Sister is actually three movies in one, divided almost evenly in 30-minute chunks for a total running time of 90 minutes. Which is a pretty nimble bit of filmmaking for an intimate three-person character study.

The first 30 minutes are a conventional romantic comedy -- if you discount the first 10 minutes or so. Those first 10 minutes contain a ceremony to remember a character who died a year earlier, so that's not your typical lead-in for a romantic comedy. However, many romantic comedies do begin with a character who is challenged in life or love, which sets the stage for his/her romantic redemption. But forget those 10 minutes and concentrate on what comes next. There's a very conventional meet cute as Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) mistakes Jack (Mark Duplass) for a prowler outside her remote island cabin, nearly smashing him over the head with an oar. As is often the case with love interests in a romantic comedy, Jack and Hannah initially despise one another, recovering only slowly from the awkwardness of the oar incident and only reluctantly sharing each other's company. Once they start putting back shots of tequila, however, a mutual attraction -- both personal and physical -- sets in, even though Hannah is a lesbian and her sister is Jack's best friend. (I didn't say it was a conventional romance in every respect, just in its structure.)

At about exactly the 30-minute mark -- just after Jack and Hannah engage in an impulsive act of drunken intercourse -- the type of movie it is shifts again. Now it's a comedy of manners. As you probably know, comedies of manners often hinge on characters keeping secrets from one another, only just barely; on overt and covert meanings of conversations; and even on a little bit of physical comedy. All of these are present as Jack's best friend and Hannah's sister, Iris (Emily Blunt), makes a surprise visit to the cabin, where she is expecting Jack but not Hannah. Nearly caught in bed together, Jack and Hannah have no time to get a story straight about what happened between them the night before, and Jack is saddled with the extra burden of quickly conveying to Hannah that they must lie to Iris (because he's in love with her, though he doesn't admit it at this point). What follows is Jack trying to get Hannah alone before she blurts anything out, without revealing to Iris that this is what he's trying to do, and then both of them keeping it cool as the conversation naturally flirts with dangerous subject matter. There's even a scene where Jack and Iris are both secretly pantomiming to Hannah, at the same time, that they need to get her alone.

Wouldn't you know it? It's pretty much exactly at the 60-minute mark that the movie makes its fateful turn towards tragedy. Again this is not tragedy in the traditional sense of killing their own fathers and sleeping with their own mothers, though there is something vaguely Oedipal about the whole scenario, as Jack has slept with the sister of the woman he loves (and she used to sleep with his dead brother). Jack and Hannah even have an earlier discussion about how their relationship to each other through Iris makes them kind of like in-laws. Of course, it's not just Jack coming between Hannah and Iris or Hannah coming between Iris and Jack, but it's also revealed that Hannah has wanted to have a baby -- and Jack has discovered that she poked holes in the condom they used while having sex. So she may be pregnant with his child as well.

I suppose it was this radical shift into melodrama that threw some people, but I prefer to think of it as the reason the story was worth telling in the first place. There has to be a complicating event or three to stimulate the drama in this scenario, and I'm okay with it being of a vaguely soap opera-ish nature, because the actors pull it off with such enviable naturalism. This is kind of an acting master class, actually, and it's not just the two pros (Blunt and DeWitt). Duplass, whose acting was always assumed to be secondary to his writing and directing, shares an equal part of the heavy lifting in these scenes.

I'm not sure if my division of Your Sister's Sister into three parts is actually helpful for giving any doubters a new perspective on it. But it certainly provides a challenge for the actors, and it's their performances that make this movie the unqualified triumph that it is.

I must admit that the first time I saw it, I was most drawn to Blunt, perhaps because I have a soft spot for her as an actress. However, I want to close this piece by singling out DeWitt. Perhaps my favorite scene is one where Hannah and Iris are lying in Hannah's bed, which Iris has invaded because she can't sleep. At first Hannah is barely awake, just trying to dismiss her insomniac sister and get back to sleep herself. She answers in monosyllables and hopes the other will just go away. But as the stakes raise, and she realizes Iris is confessing that she loves the man Hannah slept with last night, Hannah becomes fully present in the conversation -- while still trying to convince Iris that she's deep in the throes of near sleep. As DeWitt lies facing away from Blunt, as to face her would give up the whole charade, you can see her eyes register the new information, heavy with the knowledge of the damage she's done, but only in a barely perceptible way. She stiffens just slightly, responding to Iris in carefully modulated language that doesn't reveal the increasing emotional weight of the situation, indulging in again barely perceptible dawning horror that she can only get away with because she is not facing her bedmate. Once she's decided she has fully composed herself, she does turn to meet her sister's gaze, and continues to keep the charade up until Iris finally dismisses herself and heads back toward her own bedroom. Only once she's sure Iris has gone does she cover her head with her bed sheet, exasperated by the depth of her own miscalculation and inadvertent betrayal.

Great scene, and great movie -- all three thirds of it.


Nick Prigge said...

The performances I loved the first time I saw it. In fact, I gave this trio my going #1 performance of 2012. The third act I was more apprehensive about, though a couple rewatches cleared that up.

I think what still bothers me about it, though, is the end. The very end. The last shot. It's cast in the light of a happy ending but I just don't think it would be as uncomplicated as the film would make it appear. Unless I'm mis-reading it. Everything else I love, I just can't shake the way it leaves me feeling.

Vancetastic said...

And that's ... okay.

You may be misreading it, but I'm not sure. I see a lot of apprehensiveness in those faces as they look at that pregnancy test. There are half smiles and brave attempts at being positive, but I think there's a very real sense that that outcome of this test will either make them or break them. I believe that if she's pregnant, it'll be the ruin of what they all have with each other. However, I believe THEY believe they can make it work, which is what I find really touching.