One valuable quality female filmmakers can bring to cinema is an outsider’s perspective on masculinity. From Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” to Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” female directors have delivered a critical point of view on male bonding and military machismo. Lynn Shelton’s 2009 breakthrough “Humpday” falls into this tradition, depicting a clash of male egos with a wicked sense of humor.
Shelton is also interested in gay and lesbian themes. While I don’t know where her sexuality lies, her treatment of them suggests she’s an outsider here, too. “Humpday” revolves around two heterosexual guys who decide to make a porno in which they have sex with each other. Although its ending made sense in terms of these particular characters’ motivations, it still felt like a cop-out. “Your Sister’s Sister” offers up the latest in a long line of movie lesbians who have sex with men, although we later discover that the character did so largely in an attempt to get pregnant.
“Your Sister’s Sister” begins at a memorial party a year after the death of Jack’s (Mark Duplass) brother Tom. While one person offers a sentimental speech about how the film “Hotel Rwanda” inspired Tom to volunteer at a homeless shelter, Jack recalls his brother’s days as a teenage bully.
Seeing the trouble Jack is having with Tom’s death, Tom’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) stages an “intervention,” telling him he should stay alone for a week in her family’s cabin off the coast of Washington State. When Jack gets there, he discovers that Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is already there. She’s a lesbian recovering from the breakup of a seven-year relationship. Though Iris implies that Jack should drink less, he and Hannah split a bottle of tequila and wind up sleeping together. They’re quite unprepared for a visit from Iris the next day.
Most of John Cassavetes’ films offered up melodrama disguised — through acting and directorial style — as realism. Shelton seems to be aiming for something similar. While Cassavetes’ films were carefully scripted, they were often mistaken for improv exercises. Much of “Your Sister’s Sister” was genuinely improvised, and “Humpday” was made with a script but without pre-written dialogue. In the latter film, this technique worked. In “Your Sister’s Sister,” Shelton reaches for an emotional truth through on-the-spot interactions from her cast. The problem is that they’re still working from a narrative whose outlines are grossly phony.
The relationship between Iris and Hannah is quite believable. It’s far less comprehensible why both women would want to spend so much time with Jack. To be fair, the film — by having Hannah tell Jack, in no uncertain terms, how desperate he seems and suggest he get away for a while — does initially acknowledge his unattractive side. Her concern for him, however, soon gives way to the characters backstabbing and betraying one another in small and large ways — from putting butter in a vegan’s mashed potatoes to poking holes in a condom. Still, the film seems unaware about just what jerks these characters can be. It ends with the three of them prepared to raise a family together if necessary.
In “Humpday,” Shelton worked from a limited visual palette. Her cinematographer’s video camera was relatively low-grade, and almost all her shots were close-ups taken from a handheld camera. She’s expanded her visual vocabulary greatly in “Your Sister’s Sister.” In fact, all the scenes were shot from two cameras simultaneously. There’s a much greater variety of camera angles. The film still winds up feeling frustratingly claustrophobic. The problem doesn’t lie with Shelton’s choice of camera angles but with her decision to stage 90 percent of it in the cabin. She uses long shots of the island’s exteriors as punctuation; these images are expressive enough to suggest they could have added up to something more than mere breaks in the tension.
The ending of “Your Sister’s Sister” affirms the merits of unconventional family structures — as well as arthouse ambiguity. It’s too bad that the 90 minutes that came before cobble together an aura of reality and contrived plot twists. “Humpday” showed that Shelton has talent, particularly as a director of actors, but “Your Sister’s Sister” is a disappointing follow-up.
YOUR SISTER’S SISTER | Directed by Lynn Shelton | IFC Films | Opens Jun. 15 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center | Lincoln Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com