Your Sister’s Sister
I hadn’t seen Humpday when I was over in the United States and this film started its small release in some selected cinemas ( Read: New York) so I didn’t see it though I did catch the trailer. It looked like your standard Sundance fare: a speaky, small, sorrowful and strongly indie iteration of all those romantic comedy tropes that we’ve seen before. Because of that when it made its Australian debut at MIFF I skipped that screening too; my second strike. Thankfully then a friend put in a good word for the film and gently forced me to pick up Lynn Shelton’s previous picture – the aforementioned and reviewed Humpday – so when it came time for Sister to open in regular release here ( albeit on only four screens in the state) I was there for the opening session and so glad of that fact.
If you wanted too you could easily synopsize the story as being a sort of reverse Humpday – a straight male has sex with a homosexual woman and the rest of the film follows the fallout of that act – but I’m not sure that this would do it justice, because like Humpday Sister is actually a ménage-a-tuois. In another reversal though the ratio of sexes has been swapped between films, this time as the title suggests there are two women and the one man stuck between them so the way that it handles the sex act is staggeringly different.
Overall though Shelton approaches her direction from a very similar place, though the execution in this case is much more professional; the budget is bigger but the style is the same ( though the budget was still only 125k, which is ridiculously small for a full feature). She still crafts a very small, intimate and realistic piece of fuzzy handheld cinema with long still shots centered on the characters, only now she can also afford to run a second unit to shoot HD footage of the scenery to include between scenes. I’m thankful for this because the setting that she has chosen for the film, a remote north-eastern island, is a rather stunning one that sparked my interest in maybe doing something similar.
I mention money because by looking at a full synopsis or the films trailer you could quite easily get the impression that Shelton has sold-out. Mark Duplass has gone from the biggest name in the film to the smallest – his co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt two familiar and well established actresses, the former giving her best performance by far – and the story seems much safer on paper because people are basically more comfortable with lesbians and the rest of the story is seemingly structured like a common romantic comedy. On the surface the struggles that the characters face seem to be standard ones – secret crushes, secret sex and strong romantic speeches – but just as Humpday transcended its silly premise Sister does the same for these tropes.
If nothing else had clued you in to this up to that point some details present in the parent’s cabin that houses much of the movie will: if this were your regular romantic comedy then the place that they stay in would either be modern and idyllic or identically decrepit, but here the house simply looks like an average holiday house. In particular the blankets, cheesy crocheted nanna numbers, express just how un-eroticised that this event is intended to be. More than that though it is the characters that separate this film from all others of a similar sort.
Just as Humpday ( I should probably stop using that film as a point of comparison) used its comedic premise to cut a deep cross section into mate-hood Sister uses its story to highlight the interesting intricacies of sisterhood ( and sibling hood as a whole). The relationship between Hannah and her sister ( This can’t be coincidence can it Woody Allen fans?) is a strong but volatile one, they have little in common besides their love for one another and so seeing them butt heads and banter across a shared bed is fascinating, more so than the comparatively shallow fawning between friends.
I was glad then when at the end of the inevitable second act fallout, when everyone starts to fight and the relationships fall apart ( more rom-com cliche than spoiler) that the film was willing to stay with the two women and hold their relationship above the romance. The end of The Kids Are Alright ruined the movie for a lot of people, but I still think that it was a remarkably brave move and was glad to see something similar shaping up to happen here but the film bows a little in the end, allowing the man back in the door to explain himself with a speech to swoon for, completing the lives of these two women that had seemed capable of doing that themselves only a single scene back.
But this isn’t really a criticism because the ending that we get certainly isn’t a bad one, in fact its really rather beautiful and uplifting, just not necessarily brave. I wonder though whether it needs to be both. When you can execute cliches with this much class and care then why worry about changing them? If your story still makes the audience laugh, cry, cheer and care for the characters then worry about being subversive? So Your Sister’s Sister is a little safer than Shelton’s other works but it’s also stunningly good, which just means to me that more people will be willing to see it and this more people will then enjoy it like I did. The next time Lynn releases a film you can be sure that I’ll be lining up to see it.