After putting male insecurity under a comic microscope in “Humpday,” writer-director Lynn Shelton hands the fairer sex a more prominent role in “Your Sister’s Sister,” another winning study of relational boundaries crossed and sexual dares gone awry. With Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt blending nicely opposite mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass, this deftly performed, semi-improvised three-hander reps a step up in polish and ambition from its predecessor — arguably too much ambition in an excess of late-breaking narrative complication. Nonetheless, the film, which IFC picked up at Toronto, boasts solid appeal for indie fans and mainstream moviegoers interested in trying a safe, tasty item from the smarthouse menu.
Stuck in a deep personal rut a year after the death of his brother Tom, Jack (Duplass) accepts an invitation from his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), to spend a week alone at her family’s island getaway so he can reflect on his life. He arrives to find the house already occupied by Iris’ older sister, Hannah (DeWitt), and spends a few moments ogling her through the window before she hears a noise and nearly attacks him with an oar. Off to an awkward start, the two spend a long night loosening up over a bottle of booze, during which Hannah tells Jack she’s just broken up with Pam, her girlfriend of seven years.
Beautifully played by DeWitt and Duplass, the talk flows as smoothly as the tequila, sounding natural yet carefully judged in its pauses and inflections. Their conversation effortlessly introduces the pic’s pivotal incident as Jack, going a bit too far in reassuring Hannah how sexy she is, finds himself drunkenly suggesting a what-the-hell roll in the hay, a proposition the equally soused Hannah gamely accepts. The ensuing sex scene is over in a flash (the frantic search for a condom seems to last longer), but the consequences are almost immediate, especially when Iris surprises the pair by stopping by the house the next morning.
Jack begs Hannah not to tell her sister what happened the night before. Though initially unsure what the big deal is, Hannah agrees, gradually assessing that both Jack and Iris may be more emotionally attached than they realize or care to admit. As the three hang out, cook and go on long walks through the beautiful surrounding woods, Shelton lovingly nurses each relationship in this delicate configuration, bringing in sibling backstory in a light, offhand manner while remaining focused on the big secret whose exposure is clearly only a matter of time. Helmer’s touch is probing but surpassingly gentle in the way it allows these three flawed, fundamentally decent individuals to wound each other without ever devolving into mean-spirited recriminations.
Credited as creative consultants (along with a fourth thesp, Mike Birbiglia, who has a small but effective part near the beginning), the three leads are pitch-perfect here, loose and low-key yet fully in character. Duplass is on firm footing as a fun, talkative dude who goes amusingly into panic mode, while Blunt endears as the bubbly, optimistic gal with a knack for bringing people together. But it’s DeWitt who delivers the most moving performance as the quieter, more abrasive of the two sisters, her somewhat sharp manner barely concealing deep reserves of heartache and quiet desperation.
DeWitt’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable in that her role is the most problematically conceived, not only in its somewhat stereotypical outlines (artistically inclined vegan lesbian), but also in one concealed motivation that sends the film in an unexpected and not entirely welcome direction. An incisive study of human behavior would have been more than enough to sustain this affecting and affectionate feature through to its closing reels, yet the script seems to pack one or two more narrative beats than needed and ends on a note both ambiguous and pat.
Shelton retains much of her “Humpday” crew on a picture with a less aggressively handheld, off-the-cuff visual style and noticeably more music. Pic was lensed on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, and gorgeous shots of the scenery, often at sunset, add another layer of production polish.