The crew on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” once joked that “Smokey and the Bandit” director Hal Needham’s philosophy was “Give me an old barn and a Trans Am, and I’ll give you drama.” For writer-director Lynn Shelton, making the follow-up to her indie breakout “Humpday,” she pulls it off with a guy, two girls, a cabin in the woods and a bottle of tequila.
That kind of stripped-down approach can be unbearably earnest or stiff in the wrong hands, but the extraordinary cast of “Your Sister’s Sister” can make scenes of people talking feel completely exhilarating and exciting. It’s a testament to the sizzle that great actors can give to the least flashy of set-ups.
It’s been a year since Jack (Mark Duplass) lost his brother, and he’s spent the last 12 months in a funk of his own making. Jack’s best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) — Iris used to date the brother, but she and Jack stayed close after the breakup — decides the best thing to do is to pack Jack off to her father’s empty house on one of those schmancy islands off the coast of Washington state, where he can ride his bike, be away from the internet and get in touch with himself.
When Jack arrives at the house late one night, he discovers it’s not as empty as Iris thought; her half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has camped out there, smarting over a breakup with her longtime girlfriend. After mistaking Jack for a home intruder, Hannah invites him in, and the two proceed to spend the evening knocking back tequila and nursing their broken hearts.
The awkwardness of their eventual drunken sex is compounded the following day, when Iris shows up with groceries and confesses to Hannah (whom she’s surprised to see) that she’s in love with Jack. As their time in the house proceeds, all three characters reveal surprising and embarrassing truths that send each to their corners to refigure their lives and their relationships with each other.
Iris’ unannounced arrival could have been the stuff of door-slamming farce, but Shelton wisely lets everything play out in a way that feels genuine and organic. (And still funny.) These characters are all damaged in their own ways, but they’re also capable of real happiness, so they’re lucky to be operating in a filmic universe where they aren’t just bugs on pins; Shelton’s empathy for the characters bleeds through, even at their worst moments.
Duplass has made a name for himself as the co-director of films like “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” but mainstream Hollywood appears to be catching on to his acting skills; he recently appeared in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion,” and he’s about to co-star in “People Like Us.” Here, reteaming with his “Humpday” director, he manages that rare feat of playing a man weighed down by entropy without letting the same thing happen to his performance.
Blunt and DeWitt both take advantage of these rich roles, creating individually fascinating characters who also click perfectly as sisters. An extended scene in which they spoon in bed and whisper their conversation feels so natural and honest that it’s like they’ve been siblings all their lives.
If there’s a failing to “Your Sister’s Sister,” it’s that Shelton’s script takes the characters to emotionally naked and confrontational places, but then resolves their issues with not nearly enough muss. The too-clean climax feels like a cheat after the rugged terrain that these three people have had to travel over the course of the story.
Still, no other movie out right now offers the sheer thrill of performance offered up by these fine actors. It’s a sight to behold.