Friday, December 14, 2012

Sibling Rivalry

For the first two acts of Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister (2012-ish), I was getting kind of impatient with it. Is this film going to show me anything that wasn't in the trailer? I wondered. This is a plague upon a blighted cinematic landscape: trailers want to make sure that the film is a known quantity, a safe quantity, in order to part you with your hard earned scratch, which means by the time you actually sit in the theater, you've seen the movie already. The rest is make-work. This is not Your Sister's Sister's fault. It is, rather, a fault with the economies of movie making. It turns out that there IS something in the first two acts of Your Sister's Sister that isn't in the trailer, and it's something that provides a key to a final act that managed to be a pleasant surprise. (Note, here there be spoilers).

The story here follows Jack (Mark Duplass), another of the American cinema's dudebro child-men whose life is going nowhere. After a drunken tirade at a party commemorating the death of Jack's brother, Jack's best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), decided an intervention is in order. She commands Jack to get on his little red bike, ride down to the ferry, and head to Iris's family cabin on an island in Puget Sound. Jack dutifully complies. The only problem with this plan is that Iris's sister, Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt), has unexpectedly and unbeknownst to Iris (or Jack) taken up residence after the break-up with her long-term partner. Jack and Iris hit it off while commiserating over tequila, and wind up in bed together. When Iris arrives the next day, both Jack and Hannah feel weird about it, a feeling amplified when Iris confides in her sister that she's in love with Jack and is looking for a way to tell him...

This is all the plot you get from the trailer. What it omits is the fact that Hannah is a lesbian and that her relationship with her ex-partner ended over the idea of children. Hannah wants children. Her ex did not. The movie hinges on this point, and the filmmakers do a good job of disguising their intentions with this. In truth, I was a lee-tle bit annoyed at the the basic premise of the film in light of the information that Hannah is queer because her early willingness to jump into bed with Jack seems like a kind of stereotype, where all a lesbian character really needs is a good fuck from a dude to get over things. Had the film left it at that, I would be pretty sour on it. But there's a method to this. Hannah keeps her queerness and her willingness to jump into bed with Jack has an ulterior motive. She's punctured the condom. She wants a baby, after all. And with that motivation, the movie transforms from some dumb indie rom com into something else.

Part of that transformation is down to the actors. Duplass, as I mentioned, plays a kind of dudebro child-man, but that's probably unkind to him. Jack has hidden depths that come to the fore later in the movie and Duplass's broad face is a fine canvas for either shallow or deep emotions. Rosemary DeWitt's character is kind of a sphinx. She doesn't betray much, which is appropriate, I guess, given her role in how this all develops. The heart of the movie is Emily Blunt, though. She has widest range of emotions to play and she nails it all. Part of that transformation is down to how this is filmed. Great whacks of this are improvised by the actors and they're good enough to make it all look unforced and natural (always a risk with improv-ed movies). Much of this film's significant conversation is pillow talk. This is a movie that spends a lot of time in bed. It's unusually intimate. When the camera moves into the outdoors, the landscapes place everything in context with nature. It's like the movie is tacitly endorsing the naturalness of its constructed family unit. It's a quiet, almost subliminal statement.

The theme of this film--on the nature of families in the new millennium--is hidden in plain sight for most of the film. It's even hidden in the title of the film. After it sets all its pieces into motion, this reconstitutes the very idea of family, in which non of the potential parents is married to each other, in which the only binding tie between everyone is love. Not even sex, but love. This is a very queer-influenced film, because it provides a cinematic equivalent to the way that many queer-identified people wind up constructing their families. By the time this maneuvers to its final, absolutely perfect final shot, I was grinning. This was not the movie I expected, and that's good. I expected a callow examination of the loves of indie hipsters. Instead I got sweetness and humanity and genuine love and a vindication of family structures that don't hew to some constricting notion of a traditional nuclear structure (take THAT! American Family Association!). There are all kinds of families, this film is saying, and all of them are valid where there is love.

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