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Critical Consensus: Marshall Fine and Rene Rodriguez Discuss Lynn Shelton’s ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

Critical Consensus: Marshall Fine and Rene Rodriguez Discuss Lynn Shelton's 'Your Sister's Sister'

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics listed in Indiewire’s Criticwire Network discuss a recent topic from the film world with Indiewire’s film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Hollywood and Fine film critic Marshall Fine and Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez discuss Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” which opens in several cities Friday.

If audiences were to attend Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” based solely on the poster or the trailer, they might expect a pretty average chick flick. Neither of those marketing tools tell you about Shelton’s experimental production method, which is entirely based around improvisation. In interviews, she has credited sibling directors Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter co-stars in “Your Sister’s Sister”) with opening her eyes to this approach, and she first applied it in her previous movie, “Humpday.” Her latest project is interesting partly because the cast contains two relatively big movie stars, Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt, and finds them adhering to the kind of approach not usually associated with this genre or celebrity performances in general.

Marshall, since you authored a terrific book about John Cassavetes a few years ago, do you see any connections between Shelton’s loose, improvisational process and Cassavetes’ own use of similar techniques? Or is it sacrilegious to even think in those terms? Either way, as a fan of her films, do you see her as an innovator or essentially a comedy filmmaker who just gives her actors more freedom than most directors?

MARSHALL FINE: It’s not sacrilegious to mention Lynn Shelton and John Cassavetes in the same sentence. Her movies deal in the same kind of “in the moment” humanity of her characters that Cassavetes’ did. The difference is that, over the years, the myth has grown that Cassavetes’ improvisation involved making the film up as the actors went along, which was untrue: In fact, Cassavetes’ films were very scripted. The improvisation came in the performances and the blocking; actors were free to go wherever felt right and the cameraman was instructed to follow. In other words, Cassavetes wanted to capture the performance in all its freedom and not constrict the actor with hitting a mark or finding a key light.

By contrast, Shelton’s work is, in many ways, much more daring, because, while working from a plot outline, the actors create the dialogue themselves. When I interviewed her about this film, she admitted that she had scripted certain bits of dialogue for the actresses but that, after a while, they were able to swing with the improv style the same way the Duplass brothers did.

Interestingly, when I interviewed Mark Duplass recently about “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” he also said that their style was to script thoroughly and let the actors take it from there.

As for the marketing of this film, it’s a disservice to market it as a chick flick, which it’s not, in any sense that I understand the term.

Rene, you praised “Humpday” in your review of that film for “illustrating how men often can’t help but behave like stubborn children in the company of their friends — even when the stakes are raised to ridiculous levels.” Would you say that “Your Sister’s Sister” makes similarly shrewd observations? And how does it compare to other romantic comedies released today?

RENE RODRIGUEZ: I’ve always thought the whole “mumblecore” movement — a term I don’t like and usually try to avoid — was essentially a repackaging and rebranding of Cassavetes’ style, but with wackier conceits and less insight and substance. “Your Sister’s Sister” is a perfect example of what I mean: The movie opens with a great scene in which a group of people gather to toast and commemorate the memory of their mutual friend Tom, who died a year ago. The acting is natural and spontaneous. You don’t know any of these characters yet, but Shelton is able to create an immediate emotional intimacy: You feel like you’re sitting there in that living room with them. Then the tone becomes excruciatingly awkward when Tom’s brother (played by Mark Duplass), who is still dealing with unresolved grief and resentment, delivers a less-than-flattering eulogy. It’s a great opening, but the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to it.

I liked Shelton’s “Humpday” a lot because despite its ridiculous premise, the movie said a lot about the way men relate to each other — especially men who are approaching middle age, have been friends since childhood and feel an instinctive need to act out and misbehave whenever they get together as a way of hanging on to their youth. Shelton’s female perspective gave the movie a fresh and engaging point of view: It didn’t feel like just another film about boys behaving badly.

But for all its naturalistic style and improvised dialogue, “Your Sister’s Sister” felt to me like a high-concept Hollywood comedy that has practically nothing to say. The movie ties itself into improbable knots to strand the characters in uncomfortable situations. Duplass loves Emily Blunt, but she used to date his brother, so instead he hooks up with her sister Rosemary DeWitt, who happens to be a lesbian — a vegan lesbian! Everything in this movie feels so practical and neat, it’s maddening. The characters are staying in a vacation home where there is no TV or Wi-fi, so they have no way to entertain themselves other than to stay up late drinking, and you know what that always leads to! DeWitt is on the rebound from a failed relationship, so that’s why she’s open to the idea of sleeping with a man. You make do with what you’ve got, right? Blunt and Duplass have feelings for each other, but neither one is willing to voice them, because if they did the movie would be over. Somehow, this movie manages to feel less credible than “Humpday,” and that one was about two straight guys who decide to film a gay porno!

Put it another way: I really liked the Duplass brothers’ “Cyrus,” which explored the emotional discomfort of a man dating a single mom with an overprotective, grown son. I did not like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” because it was filled with situations and coincidences that were so far-fetched, the movie bordered on science-fiction. I’m all for low-budget, naturalistic filmmaking, but the filmmaker needs to have something substantial to say, or present us with an indelible character (e.g. Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence”) or at least provide us with an interesting scenario (the horror movie elements of “Baghead”). “Your Sister’s Sister” is just another tiresome movie about people whose inability to communicate creates big problems, until they finally decide to talk to each other. Cue the happy (and risible) ending.  
Marshall, how would you respond to Rene’s critique? Is there something reassuring in the familiar qualities of the storytelling or does Shelton’s technique manage to elevate them? And since you’re a fan of Shelton’s other work, would you like to see her continue to tell this kind of small-scale, character-driven story or tackle more ambitious material?

Also, a question to both of you: Since Rene dared to use the much-disputed M word — “mumblecore” — I think we should revisit what, if anything, it means now. Was there ever, in fact, an actual American indie movement over the last 10 years or was the “mumblecore” hype just a desperate attempt to draw a connection between various low-budget movies being made at the same time? Is “Your Sister’s Sister” certifiably “mumblecore” or does it deserve a different categorization?

FINE: I have to disagree with my good friend Rene. I liked “Your Sister’s Sister” a lot — and, to go a step further, I also really liked “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” The reality is that people are terrible at interpersonal communication and at asking for what they really want. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be a growth industry in Life Coaches (a job I’ll happily sign up to be paid to do, since I have many opinions about the way other people should run their lives).

I don’t see the characters in “Your Sister’s Sister” as cliched types at all. Very few of the vegan lesbians that I’ve met (admittedly a small group; I’d hate to see the Venn diagram on that) look much like Rosemarie DeWitt. And Duplass, for me, has become a better and better actor, someone who seems as natural delivering wisecracks as dealing with heavier material. As for the film’s setup being contrived, well, that’s true of all movies — all stories, even: You start with a premise and the audience either is or isn’t willing to suspend disbelief and live in the world of the film. I was more than happy to enter this particular world with these people; their discomfort and confusion results from following unlikely impulses. That creates the tension, the humor and the emotional stakes of the film.

That said, I have no doubt that Shelton can handle drama; I’ll be interested to see whether she can maintain her approach to material and be able to improvise a story with a less-kidding tone. Whether she should try something bigger or stick with something more intimate? That’s obviously her choice. But you don’t grow as an artist if you only stick with what you know you can do.

As for “mumblecore,” frankly I think that’s a creation of critics and entertainment writers looking for an easy way to categorize something they otherwise can’t put a name on. I somehow missed the “mumblecore” moment in 2005 at SXSW (which screened films by the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski) and came to it late — and then my response was, “What’s the big freakin’ deal? It’s just low-budget filmmaking.”

In retrospect, it seems to be about a very-low-budget DIY movement brought on by the death of any number of prominent indie companies and the introduction of inexpensive digital technology that meant anyone with a script and a camera could shoot a movie that looked (almost) as good as film. But there have been any number of those moments in the past 30 years; was John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus 7” the original mumblecore film? It’s less about an aesthetic that’s in the zeitgeist than the shifting and increasing difficulty to get a film made. I would imagine that, if you interviewed programmers for Sundance at any point in the last 20 years, they would tell you that, every year, they’ve seen films comparable to the first so-called “mumblecore” movies. But three of anything constitutes a trend to lazy journalists: Duplass, Swanberg, Bujalski all at one festival? What else could it be than a movement?

Once you’ve got the attention of the critics, however, you have to deliver — and grow. There’s been a learning curve for the Duplass brothers, who have managed to raise their game along with their budgets. The fact that you don’t see Swanberg or Bujalski making movies for Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics probably has more to do with their ability as filmmakers than any kind of “mumblecore” pigeonholing.
RODRIGUEZ: I totally agree with your observations on mumblecore, Marshall. I came to it late as well and wondered what was the big deal other than the improvisations, which Larry David had already been doing on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” There is a natural tendency among film critics/journalists attending festivals to discover trends — they make good copy — and back in the days when I still went to the Toronto film festival, I sometimes found myself trying to find a connection between the 25 or 30 movies I had just crammed.

Every year, when the Miami International Film Festival rolls around, my editors ask “What’s the theme this year?” My answer is always, “Good movies, hopefully.” I don’t know if the Duplass brothers or Shelton have ever used the term “mumblecore” to describe their own work. But anything that helps a film stand out from the pack — even a catchy if meaningless label — is helpful when you’re starting out.

I’d like to see Shelton try something different other than exploratory, lab-room cinema (i.e. “Let’s throw these actors together with a vague idea of the marks they should hit and see what happens!”). Too often in “Your Sister’s Sister” I was aware of Blunt and DeWitt trying to be spontaneous and “real,” which is obviously going to get in the way of the movie. I might not have been as distracted with the details I pointed out if the movie had engaged me more. Duplass isn’t as distracting, because I’m used to seeing him in these kinds of films (the flip side is that he sticks out badly when he’s cast in shiny, scripted movies like “Darling Companion”). But that scene where he takes his anger out on the bike he used to get to the house felt awfully hoary and convenient to me.  

Improvisation is great as long as it doesn’t become the reason you’re watching the movie. That long scene near the start of the film in which Duplass and DeWitt get drunk together felt endless to me. I wanted to yell out, “Get on with it! We know where this is going!” Certain scenes in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” were reportedly improvised (especially the scenes at the wedding reception), and some of the funniest bits in “21 Jump Street” were made up on the spot (such as the scene in which Channing Tatum attacks Jonah Hill with that stuffed animal). What’s great about those improvs is that you didn’t notice them.

I wonder what Shelton would have done with a traditionally scripted movie such as “People Like Us” (in which Duplass, coincidentally, also has a small part). That was a film that cried out for a much more naturalistic style and tone than it has. Yet for all its faults (including, again, the device of having the entire plot hang on someone’s inability to state a simple fact), the depiction of the sibling relationship between Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks was far more believable to me than Blunt and DeWitt’s bond in “Your Sister’s Sister.”  

“People Like Us” is a studio movie that opens later this month that certainly cost a lot more to make (and market) than “Your Sister’s Sister.” The contrast between those two kinds of movies raises an important issue that critics often have to deal with.

When you choose to write about a new filmmaker, you can end up playing a role in pushing his or her career along. Critical acclaim is part of the way that emerging voices — like Shelton, whose “Humpday” was a Sundance breakout story — can develop a personal brand and public reputation. Should a critic ever take it easy on a film that shows a certain amount of promise in order to ensure the filmmaker will get new opportunities? Using “Your Sister’s Sister” as an example, is it reasonable to emphasize everything that works about this movie simply because you both are overall fans of Shelton’s work?

And just to pivot off that thought, consider this recent article that anoints Shelton “the Next Great American Director” in its headline. Do you think that’s a misguided or premature statement? And, if so, is there anyone else you might be willing to consider for that title instead?

FINE: What drives most critics, I would hope, is the passion for film and for sharing the films they feel most passionate about. But, while the job itself confers the role of tastemaker, it’s a slippery slope when you start playing favorites, particularly when your favorites aren’t doing their best work.

I’m not going to give a director a pass just because I liked his other work and admire his sensibility. Each film has to be judged on its own merits, not some other agenda involving promoting a filmmaker you like. Just because I love the work of the Coen brothers, for example, doesn’t mean I won’t give them a negative review (I hated “Burn After Reading” and “Intolerable Cruelty,” to name two). Similarly, while I am a fan of Lynn Shelton, I’m not going to give her a pass in the name of encouraging her talent. All a critic has is his own taste and integrity. You compromise that to serve a different agenda at your own risk.

Obviously, there are different ways to shape a negative review; it’s possible to be negative and encouraging at the same time. Again, that’s your call. I’d probably be more likely to do that with Shelton or the Duplass brothers than with, say, Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, to name two of contemporary cinema’s bigger gasbags.

As for the headline about Lynn Shelton, well, it’s a headline, isn’t it? It’s calculated to draw readers, who theoretically will look at it and say, “Wow – I’ve never heard of this person and now they’re saying she’s the ‘next great American director.’ I better read this.” The critic didn’t write the headline, though he may have said the same thing in the story.

Why do critics write things like that? For any number of reasons: to get attention, for starters, by loudly expressing an outrageous, contrary or previously unheard opinion. In the purest form, it’s a way to get your ya-yas out by writing a mash note to an artist you love (and, hopefully, backing it up with firm critical opinion, rather than just fanboy sheepdip). Being a critic is its own form of bully pulpit and we’re entitled to use it from time to time.

Ultimately, however, while I think my job is to call attention to good films and point out shoddy work, I don’t see my job as being to encourage filmmakers. It may be a side effect of what I do, but it’s not what I’m thinking about when I write.

As for who I consider the next great American director, well, I have no clue. I know who I like. If I was feeling contrary, I’d say Bobcat Goldthwait, just because he’s such an outsider and yet so smart and scathing.

To me, the next great American director is the one who can make interesting films on his own terms and make them in a variety of styles and genres. The ones who are doing that right now, to my mind, are Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh. At least, they’re the first ones who come to mind.

RODRIGUEZ: Marshall is right. The biggest pleasure — and perk — of this job is championing movies and filmmakers whose work affects you. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a first-time filmmaker or Steven Spielberg. But ultimately I write for the public, not the industry. I am a big fan of the Duplass brothers, but that didn’t make me give “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” a pass when I reviewed it. I still can’t wait to see their next film, though.

Same goes for “Your Sister’s Sister.” Shelton is obviously talented and has a healthy career ahead of her. But I do her no favors by glossing over what I perceive to be flaws in her work. A lot of criticism hinges on tone. You should be able to tell how the writer feels about a particular filmmaker or genre by their word choices, regardless of whether or not they like a particular movie. It also helps if you’re familiar with the reviewer’s tastes and history. Anyone who has read me for a while knows there are certain genres I favor more than others. I loved reading Pauline Kael’s reviews of Brian De Palma movies, because they were so over the top and delirious. The fact that she gave in to the connection she felt with his work made her reviews better.

As for The Next Great American Filmmaker: I prefer to talk about who the current greats are, instead of throwing out ridiculous predictions that sound like they’ve been written primarily to be used as promotional blurbs. Right now, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson are all making amazing, unique films. When people lament the state of current Hollywood and look back longingly at the past (especially the 1970s), I like to remind them that most of the guys who were making movies then — Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola — are still working. And now they’re joined by younger filmmakers who were greatly influenced by the 1970s. We’re living through a great time for movies. You just have to endure an Adam Sandler comedy now and then to get to the good stuff.

FINE: One thing I’d add: Rene talks about readers who have read him for a while. But with the contraction of the number of daily newspapers — and daily newspaper and weekly magazine critics — it’s rare now to have that kind of local connection: the critic you read every day. I suppose the Internet provides the same possibilities — but it’s not like having a local critic whose tastes you figure out by reading him on a regular basis, whether you agree with him or not. When newspapers cut critic jobs and say, “Well, the readers can find all that on the Web,” they’re cutting their own throats, one slice at a time, by eliminating a familiar local voice who speaks with authority.

RODRIGUEZ: I would argue that the medium is irrelevant in some ways. Some of my favorite critics (Glenn Kenny, Mike D’Angelo, Walter Chaw) I’ve only ever read online, yet I’ve followed them long enough to form a kind of connection with them.

What IS important about a “local” critic — be it at a newspaper or local TV station — is that you’re writing about movies for a specific culture and sensibility. The Cuban zombie movie “Juan of the Dead,” for example, is not a very good film outside of Miami. But here, it was a three-and-a-half star film, which is the rating I gave it when I reviewed it.

Obviously I agree with you about newspapers, Marshall. The ones that have deemed criticism expendable simply don’t understand the role it serves. It’s just as important — and in many ways geographical — as sports coverage.

Watch the trailer for “Your Sister’s Sister” below:

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