Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” is some sort of miracle — a cleverly conceived, perfectly acted three-character dramedy that has all the verbal beauty of a great stage play and yet always feels absolutely cinematic, albeit in an unforced sort of way.
Iris (Emily Blunt) was dating Tom. But Tom died. Since then Iris has become best friends with Tom’s brother Jack (Mark Duplass). Now she’s concerned because Jack’s drinking, bitterness and lack of direction since Tom’s death have reached a tipping point.
So she initiates her version of an intervention, telling Jack — ordering him, really — to ride his bike to the ferry (they live in Seattle) and go to an island where Iris’ family has a rarely-used home.
No TV. No Internet. Jack will be forced to spend time alone with himself.
Except that when Jack pedals up to the threshold on a cold night (nights are always cold on the island, and wet, too) he finds the house occupied. Iris’ half sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is already encamped. She’s left her girlfriend of seven years and is trying to get her head together.
A bottle of tequila and some clever conversation later and Iris and Jack are tumbling into bed together. It’s not an auspicious mating (he’s got, er, control problems and she hasn’t been with a man for a long time) and the next morning they’re prepared to write the whole thing off as a Cuervo-instigated mistake.
Except that Iris suddenly appears. Jack and Hannah agree not to tell her what happened.
You can guess how well that resolution works, especially when Iris confides to Hannah her true feelings about Jack.
“Your Sister’s Sister” specializes in long conversations (we’re talking 10, 15 minutes) that play out in real time. Hannah and Jack’s boozy night together is a highlight — two bruised people charming each other to see if they still have the ability. It feels absolutely real.
But there are other moments, some featuring the two sisters, some with all three characters tiptoeing cautiously around the elephant(s) in the room.
These exchanges feel like improv but I’m pretty sure they’ve been carefully scripted. Each has its own arc, shape and specific beats, and that’s just about impossible to accomplish if the actors are winging it.
Yet for all the meticulousness of the spoken word, “Your Sister’s Sister” is visually effective as well. Benjamin Kasulke’s cinematography is equally at home with the natural beauty of the island setting and with the features of the human face. Late in the film Shelton treats us to a wordless visual passage that contrasts the two sisters’ time together against Jack’s soggy wanderings around the island.
She has it both ways.
“Your Sister’s Sister” represents a qualitative leap forward from her last movie, the so-so comedy “Humpday” (Duplass starred as one of two straight guys who on a dare make a date to have sex together). In fact, this latest film is so much better that it’s hard to imagine both were made by the same woman.