Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Today’s cinematic culture is racked with hyperbole, so much so that it isn’t really hyperbolic to call it the blood of modern cinema. Scripts focus on larger-than-life scenarios, which are richly staged and filmed with sleek precision, manipulating the content to invoke the most visceral reaction. The public relations machine creates enormous buzz and anticipation, while the internet works itself into a frenzy of expectation. The whirlwind engulfs the moviegoer, who hopes the film lives up to the hype. It’s a system that makes it easy to speak about film with hyperbolic standards, laying down flowering, cinematic praise or vicious, scathing distaste.
We love, and we hate, and we often speak of film and read about film in those dichotomies. While this system does allow us to raise smaller films out of the haze of obscurity, it also plagues many notable films that fall into the dregs of over-hyping. Expectations soar so high that no film could ever hope to satisfy. But then there are the films that defy dichotomies, who relish in shades of grey.
It’s harder when the film isn’t as simple as a Hollywood blockbuster. How does one revel in simplicity, flaws, and humanity? How does one articulate a real, palpable passion for a film without masking its weaknesses or falling into hyperbole? We so rarely relish in the discourse of grey matter that it seems unnatural to discuss cinematic idiosyncrasies. How do we express our reaction to a film in a way that clearly celebrates its achievements? Is it possible to express passion without the help of problematic words like “best” and “perfection”?
These thoughts flow through my head every time I think of Lynn Shelton’s (My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday) latest film, Your Sister’s Sister, which hits limited release this week. I was apprehensive last year when I went to the TIFF premiere. It was a must-see film, being written and directed by an upcoming female filmmaker, starring two women. On paper, however, it sounded like your typical romantic comedy. An emotionally damaged Jack (Mark Duplass) makes a scene at his deceased brother’s memorial, pushing his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) to send him off to the remote family cabin to get his act together in solitude. Unfortunately, the cabin isn’t empty, and Jack finds himself drinking with Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), making more bad choices, and getting in over his head when Iris comes to the cabin the next day.
It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how this film would be made in Hollywood. Painfully beautiful actors would run around a palatial cottage. Super-trendy pop songs would play and slapstick ordeals would rain down on the trio until they came to a grand realization about life, one that would push them down the path towards happily ever after.
Your Sister’s Sister is nothing like that.
Shelton’s film slowly builds from slow, awkward moments into a real sense of humanity. It isn’t just a story littered with Hollywood stereotypes and props; it was the sort of flawed, living and breathing film that relays a real imperfect reality (a distinction that must be made during the era of reality television). The story allows you to escape while the method in which its relayed makes it seem like it’s part of your world.
Hollywood would have you think that the true sensory experience is the 3D one with gigantic, quick-moving visuals and deafening surround sound, but Shelton’s latest proves that hypothesis dead wrong. It’s not HD fanciness that creates our environment, but an understanding of the minute details of that environment and how people act within it. Each detail invokes the viewer’s memory banks and immerses the viewer in the environment – the warm yellow glow of the porch light, the chilly breeze from the lake, the sloppy flannel cottage clothing and mismatched linens, the intricacy of a communal cooking experience, the sluggish release of a world without technological distractions… You can almost smell the pines and the must lingering on the wood-laden retreat. As I explained it from TIFF: “It’s mumblecore verite – you’re not escaping to another world; you’re walking straight into the cabin and watching the events unfold.”
It’s precise improvisation. The film was shot in a mere twelve days, and the actors created full back stories for their characters before improvising on the details in Shelton’s script. The method allowed each to play off of each other’s genuine reactions, rather than staged emotions – most notably the moment when DeWitt makes Blunt blush. There’s something so wildly refreshing about the looks of genuine surprise and laughter that the actors pluck from each other, the way that the film seems like a beautifully shot home movie.
I love the film, yet I’m hesitant to share the love fully, because the beauty of Your Sister’s Sister is in the discovery and the bumps, not hopeful anticipation piqued by hyperbole. The feature is a vacation from typical filmmaking, one that isn’t perfect yet feels perfect in its imperfection. It’s apt; Hannah, Jack, and Iris are imperfect people in an imperfect situation, relayed in a beautiful, yet flawed film. It’s just sad that showcasing something real is something so very unique on the screen.
In his piece professing Lynn Shelton as the “Next Great American Director,” Will Leitch notes some of the film’s flaws, and how they can be forgiven: “There's a structured story, almost too structured, guiding the events of Your Sister's Sister, but you'll be forgiven for barely noticing; the interaction of the three leads is so natural and convincing that you get completely lost in it. These feel like people you know, people you've known for years, instantly. The movie doesn't really introduce these characters as much as just plop you down right in the middle of their lives. You begin caring about them without realizing why; you're pulling for them as if you know them, as if you're not watching a movie at all. Particularly considering how many third-act problems Your Sister's Sister has, this is a serious achievement; Shelton's almost able to sell a ridiculous late twist simply because we feel like close friends with these people, and, hey, haven't our closest friends shocked us with their behavior out of nowhere sometimes?”
Perhaps it’s not almost selling us a twist, but again, that mix of simplicity, flaws, and humanity. It’s not perfectly polished like the website’s airbrushed poster. Rather than the beauty of perfection, it’s the beauty of promise. Again, I’m falling into hyperbole, but I can’t help it. Your Sister’s Sister almost seems like the new wave of Hollywood. Just like the ‘70s pulled back wild studio expenditures for more modest, through-provoking films, Shelton offers a new way to look at modern film – to merge some of the plot audaciousness with more relatable human emotion.
It’s raising the film, and Shelton, to a wildly high level of expectation, but sometimes we just can’t help the hyperbole.