As much as I enjoy awards chatter, this time of year can be frustrating. Spring, summer, even early fall releases that merit attention melt away before the campaigns of the heavy hitters. While Lynn Shelton’s lovely character study “Your Sister’s Sister” may not be a factor in the Oscar race, it surely deserves your eyes.
Back in August, I ranked the film fifth in my “Top Ten Films of 2012 (So Far).” I didn’t give it enough credit. Coming back to it amid the autumn’s swirl of bigger, brasher films, its sweet stillness is not only refreshing — it feels awfully skillful, reaching for a rare degree of quiet naturalism. From its opening moments, rifling through photos and reminiscences on the one-year anniversary of a dead friend, lover, and sibling, “Your Sister’s Sister” echoes the warm nostalgia of “The Big Chill” without succumbing to that film’s sappier instincts. Rather, Jack (Mark Duplass) laments his brother’s passing with a drunk and bitter toast. “Let’s raise a glass to the whole man,” he says, dispensing with the eulogy’s usual niceties: bereft of everything else, his enraged grief is all he’s got to keep him afloat. “I used to have a brother, and I don’t anymore,” he says later. “It is what it is.”
Indeed, throughout the film, Shelton’s unobtrusive direction allows for the trio of lead actors to work each moment long after lesser filmmakers would have cut away. She picks up the thread of conversation and follows it beneath the posturing by which we present ourselves even to intimates, evincing an honorable patience. When Iris (Emily Blunt) crawls into bed with her half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), for example, the revelation is slow in coming — and the depth of emotion registers so strongly because they work through the detritus of their small talk before stumbling on the truth.
Lacking traction, “Your Sister’s Sister” may end up on some year-end “best” lists (mine included) and then dissolve into the ether, capsized by the wake of bigger boats. But that can’t take away from what the film has going for it, this elemental quality, this understanding that real life is full of moments when we sidle up to what we want to say and hope to muster the courage to have out with it. If the plot pushes credulity — the best summary I can offer without giving too much away is that it’s a sort of “Modern Family” take on the Hollywood love triangle — my sincere response is that it made me believe nonetheless.
The same is true of the best scene in the movie, a beautifully acted extended sequence between Jack and Hannah at the kitchen table. The bottle of tequila between them signals what’s coming, but not how Shelton will get us there; against your average romantic comedy’s shiny, pop-inflected montage, “Your Sister’s Sister” prefers a slow simmer of honesty and humor. What begins as a prediction — tequila equals drunken sex, awkwardness, hangover — becomes something like an earned inevitability. What surprised me wasn’t that it happened; it was that I couldn’t have imagined it happening any other way.