Interesting, imperfect people: Jack (Mark Duplass), Iris (Emily Blunt), and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) in Your Sister’s Sister

On the whole, Hollywood is not very nice to women directors. They are offered far fewer films, with much smaller budgets. And, when they do get to make a movie, they struggle for distribution. All this despite the fact that, according to the site Women and Hollywood, 50 percent of film school students are women, and have been “for some time.”

I watched the trailer for Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister several months ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it. Little did I know, that’s exactly what I would have to do: wait. Not only did it arrive in the Boston market a couple of weeks after its release date, but when it finally did show up, it was at quirky art houses only. My first attempt to see it was thwarted when it was sold out. The so-called theater in Brookline (an hour from my house) was actually a 14-seat “screening room.”

C’mon, guys!

The thing is, this particular movie shouldn’t be so marginalized. It has an 86 percent approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes “tomatometer.” In other words, 86 percent of film critics nationwide are recommending the film (not women critics, not lesbian critics, not indie critics, but 86 percent of all critics). While the word “sister” does appear in the title (twice) and there are two compelling female characters, this is not a so-called “chick flick.” In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing it again with my husband.

The story revolves around a deftly rendered relationship triangle of interesting, imperfect people. In the first scene, a somewhat too long but necessary memorial party, we meet Iris and Jack. They are best friends, still trying to get over the death of Jack’s brother, who happened to be Iris’s ex-boyfriend. Iris is moving on; Jack is stuck. So Iris offers him a trip to her father’s island cabin. “There’s no TV; there’s no Internet; there’s nothing. It’s just you,” she tells him.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), it isn’t just him. Iris’s beloved sister, Hannah, has also retreated to the cabin in order to get her head straight, having finally left her same-sex partner after much emotional neglect. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the two hit it off, drowning their sorrows in too much tequila and rumpling some sheets together in an all too brief encounter.

Early the next morning, Iris arrives, having finally realized that she is in love with Jack. And, as they say, mayhem ensues.

Not really. Because what’s been set up is what one might call a tough situation. And, as if things couldn’t get any more complicated, Shelton adds another issue that threatens to turn Hannah and Jack’s one-night stand into something longer lasting. The real complications, though, are not to be found in the plot. The characters are so honest, so thoughtful, and so utterly real that you feel genuine interest in their plight.

Shelton’s cast is simply perfect. Emily Blunt plays Iris, and it is a genuine treat to watch her trying to make everything all right for everyone else while nursing her own mixed feelings of affection and betrayal. As Jack, Mark Duplass is alternately a guy’s guy and a sensitive dope. You can’t help but smile at how hard he’s trying. And Rosemarie DeWitt (cast just days before shooting commenced when Rachel Weisz had to pull out of the project) completes the team with a smart and authentic take on Hannah.

Much of the dialogue is improvised, and Shelton lists all three of her actors as “Creative Consultants” in the credits. Through most of the movie, this approach feels extremely honest and intimate. There were just a couple of places where I wished for a little more structure in the script (an almost drunk Hannah accuses Jack, sputtering: “You’re a fucker! You’re a fucking Peeping Tom! You’re a fucker!”), and fewer whispered scenes shot in near darkness. Otherwise, the movie is completely engrossing. It reads like a very smart play rather than something that could possibly come out of Hollywood. You really believe in these people, and you want them to somehow emerge from their mess happy and whole.

The costumes look like real clothes; the sets look like real rooms. All three characters look like real people. All right, really attractive real people, but real nonetheless. There is understated art direction that contrasts with some magnificent natural scenery of the Pacific Northwest. You can’t help but think, “Wow, look what this talented director was able to do with just 2 percent of the budget spent on the latest Adam Sandler movie.”

Prior to Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton was best known for the “bromance” Humpday, which received a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. There is an effortless quality to her work that helps the audience relate. And during a movie season filled with superheroes (at my local multiplex, eight of the twelve screens are either Spider-Man or The Dark Knight), watching mere mortals sort through relationships is not just an intelligent way to spend an afternoon. It’s downright refreshing.

I highly recommend seeing Your Sister’s Sister . . . if you can find it.


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