The independent movie genre known as mumblecore is pretty much what it sounds like – at its core is a lot of mumbling (and grumbling and whining and wailing) by self-infatuated slackers. This type of movie is a staple of film festivals like Sundance and Toronto, where, wouldn't you know, "Your Sister's Sister," this week's entry in the mumblecore sweepstakes, was lauded.
There is good mumblecore and not-so-good mumblecore. In the good variety, the mumbling is witty and expressive, and the mumblers worth listening to. In the bad variety, the experience is a bit like being forced to endure a college dorm bull session at 2 in the morning.
"Your Sister's Sister," the fourth feature from director Lynn Shelton, is more good than bad, at least until its too tidy conclusion. Since it's essentially a three-character movie, it's a good thing that the characters, and the actors who play them, can hold the screen.
Mark Duplass, the It Guy of indie, plays Jack, still mourning the death of his brother a year earlier. Jack accepts an invitation from his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), to convalesce at her family's island getaway off the coast of Washington State. Iris was, not so incidentally, his brother's ex-girlfriend.
Jack and Iris both seem a bit sweeter on each other than simple friendship would require, but then again, as this film points up, friendships are rarely simple. He takes her up on her offer only to discover that the supposedly empty house is currently occupied by Iris's older, half sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is nursing her own woes after breaking up with her girlfriend of seven years.
When Jack and Hannah have an improbable, liquor-fueled, almost slapstick roll in the hay, the stage is set for comedic confusion. Iris surprises the couple by showing up at the house the next morning, unaware of what went on but suspicious. It's mumblecore Noel Coward.
Shelton developed the script with the actors, and this improvisational approach has its ups and downs. At times, the banter has a bouncy immediacy. Other times, especially when sparks fly between the trio and family secrets are unveiled, the results are less sparkling than soapy. But Shelton is careful to give each character his or her due, and their long walks in the gorgeous woods are always dramatically purposeful. They never seem like filler.
These scenes help open up the cramped central stage setting, but too often the film still feels like a play. This isn't altogether a bad thing – I'd rather watch a pretty good play on film than a "cinematic" dud – but it means that Shelton is forced to rely on some pretty worn-out theatrical devices, like those withheld secrets, to keep the drama chugging along. After a while, the film becomes an exercise in acting styles: Duplass is free-form, DeWitt is guarded, and Blunt is, well, blunt. These opposites attract.
Shelton, as a sometime actress, is understandably indulgent of her actors. Like many actor-directors, her movie's momentum derives from her performers' rhythms. "Your Sister's Sister" is within her range. It will be interesting to see what she can do with a larger canvas. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)