Displaying nerves of steel and a generous heart, helmer Adam Christian Clark takes a lot of chances with "Caroline and Jackie."

Displaying nerves of steel and a generous heart, helmer Adam Christian Clark takes a lot of chances with “Caroline and Jackie,” a tale of troubled sisters that keeps the viewer off balance throughout before delivering a payoff that serves as both catharsis and absolution. The question in this low-budget, psycho-flavored drama is whether auds will stay with the story long enough to allow Clark’s devious use of uncertainty to work its magic. The sisterhood theme will be a big plus for some constituencies, as well lead thesps Bitsie Tulloch and Marguerite Moreau as the titular duo.

“Caroline and Jackie” isn’t a mystery, per se, but it keeps one guessing and second-guessing. At the outset, the darker Caroline (Moreau) has arrived in Los Angeles to visit her fairer sister, Jackie (Tulloch). Jackie has been cooking all day in preparation, but Caroline immediately announces she’s made dinner reservations for herself, Jackie and Jackie’s new b.f., Ryan (David Giuntoli). Jackie is understandably put out but agrees to go to the restaurant, where Caroline delivers another bombshell: a surprise birthday party with Jackie’s closest friends. Except it’s two months after her birthday. It’s a situation fraught with unease, ratcheted up by Clark and Lisa Hendricks’ twitchy editing. The group eats hastily, and Caroline suggests they all go back to Jackie’s.

There, an intervention occurs. As the friends have all been alerted by Caroline, Jackie is not only suffering from anorexia (the fat-free Tulloch makes a convincing undereater), but also dealing with substance abuse. Perhaps predictably, Jackie is appalled, angry and unmoved by her friends’ pleas that she get help. But as Caroline firmly but lovingly insists, Jackie has to face her issues.

What exactly those issues are is a question that starts to gnaw at the viewer. Jackie is indeed really thin; she’s also the one who ordered the unnecessary bottle of wine at dinner. When she storms out of the house, she winds up going to a bar and ordering a scotch. For some 12-steppers, that would be enough for a diagnosis of alcoholism. But Caroline’s behavior isn’t exactly beyond reproach, either, and the viewer’s suspicions about both sisters start to get batted back and forth, like a particularly dark ball at a deranged tennis match.

One of the film’s problematic aspects is the cast of characters, who are, in general, a fairly dislikable group. No one has given Jackie the benefit of the doubt; one has come along as someone else’s date, which is plainly weird. Clark tests the viewer’s patience with a series of interactions between various members of the group, several jaunts outside the house, a little backstory, a little friction. Then things begin to unwind entirely, and “Caroline and Jackie” turns into a kind of domestic horror movie.

The picture’s most intriguing tactic, besides its structure, is the way Clark’s history as a reality TV director (“Big Brother,” the Chinese “Fashion Star”) makes itself felt here, using the spasmodic cutting and ADD aesthetic of so-called unscripted drama to accentuate the story’s underlying themes and the sisters’ relational dynamics. The sum of the film is greater than its parts, and while it does make demands of its audience, the cumulative emotional impact is startling.

Tech credits are good, and Lisbeth Scott’s score is particularly affecting.

Caroline and Jackie

Production

A Blueberry Films presentation in association with Deanland Studios. Produced by Adam Hendricks. Executive producer, Ruth Surrey. Co-producer, Bitsie Tulloch Directed, written by Adam Christian Clark.

Crew

Camera (color), Christian Swegal; editors, Clark, Lisa Hendricks; music, Lisbeth Scott; production designer, Alan Farkas; costume designer, Jennifer Giersbrook; sound (Dolby DSR), Gary Day, Czharcus M. Jones, Michael Lengies, Ross Sauroil; assistant director, Carlos Reza; casting, Demo/McCarthy. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, April 3, 2012 (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Viewpoints.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Bitsie Tulloch, Marguerite Moreau, David Giuntoli, Valerie Azlynn, Jason Gray-Stanford, David Fuit.

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