TIFF ’11 Review: The Effortless Brilliance of Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister”

Her finest film to date, the new film from the "Humpday" writer/director gets an infusion of movie stars such as Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt to bring out the...

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Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.

Unless I missed something, there is one obvious discrepancy in Lynn Shelton's new comedy "Your Sister's Sister," which like any detail in one of her films is worthy of dissection. In casting the very American Rosemarie DeWitt as the sister of the very British Emily Blunt, Shelton didn't ask either to change their natural voice for the film so they'd be consistent as siblings. This wouldn't have been an issue had Rachel Weisz played the role as originally intended, but it speaks volumes that having uninhibited actors was a small concession for Shelton to make to preserve the honesty of the work.

"Your Sister's Sister" is Shelton's fourth film, though she came to prominence with 2009's "Humpday," which took the risque premise of two dudes whose joke of making a porno together grows too serious for comfort and wrung out a real examination of male egotism. Surely, something so obviously improvised couldn't be intuitive and funny in equal measure, but Shelton pulled it off and "Your Sister's Sister" not only does it again, but makes the humor more incisive and the emotional/intellectual currents cut deeper.

Emotions are already raw at the start of "Your Sister's Sister," which opens during the one-year anniversary of the death of Tom, the ex-boyfriend of Iris (Emily Blunt) and the brother of Jack (Mark Duplass). Jack clearly isn't in a proper frame of mind when he toasts the deceased with a rambling speech about Tom's embrace of bullying after watching “Revenge of the Nerds.” So Iris suggests he takes a trip up to her father's idyllic seaside abode to clear his head.

Those plans change once he discovers Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is licking her own wounds in the woods, recovering with tequila from a breakup with her longterm lesbian partner, and change once more when an offhanded comment Jack makes about her ass leads the two into the bedroom. What they do could barely be described as sex, but when Iris shows up the next morning, it threatens to drive a monumental wedge between best friends on one side and sisters on the other.

Shelton's gift as a filmmaker is to make these dynamics feel unforced, burying particular revelations in stories told about the past and alternately watching in delight and terror as the three leads figure things out for themselves. Always conscious of what each character shares with another, the film deepens as the weight of their shared history and their secrets wear on this trio of well-meaning people who can’t be entirely open out of fear they might not want the same things. And it’s crucial that Duplass, Blunt and DeWitt are all radiant on screen, sliding easily into the warm relationships they have with each other and all nimble enough to handle the film’s sharp turns on a dime.

Like “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister” marches towards a reckoning, yet it doesn’t trudge there out of duty, keeping itself light on its toes with plenty of laughs and touches on conventions while slyly upending them. It is the steadiest of Shelton’s films to date, quite literally as cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke’s camera appears to move around a little less and editor Nat Sanders’ deft editing has sharpened the punchlines.

As Shelton told the audience after the screening, “Your Sister’s Sister” is the result of a rigorous process that involved months on iChat and Skype with her actors and 16-hour days once they reached the set. True to what Jack, Hannah and Iris learn in the film, it takes hard work to get to the truth, but while our enjoyment of the film is based on their struggle to find it, it’s the fact that Shelton makes it feel so effortless that makes her one of our most exciting filmmakers.  

"Your Sister's Sister" has been picked up by IFC Films with a likely release in 2012. It will play Toronto once more on September 16th at the Ryerson.

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