Director Lynn Shelton
Starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass
The Toronto film festival has an unshakeable habit of programming all its big guns and attention grabbers during the first week, leaving the also-rans to roll out over the last few days. But there's always the chance of discovering a gem towards the end, and that was precisely the case with Lynn Shelton's charming Your Sister's Sister – a captivating examination of criss-crossing relationships permeated by incisive performances.
This is the Seattle-based film-maker's fourth film and, like her previous effort Humpday, which surveyed straight male insecurities, it comes steeped in improv and features another winning turn from mumblecore maven Mark Duplass. Definitely not slumming it in Shelton's low-key world are Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. Both actors might be used to bigger projects (and trailers), but they settled into Seattle's San Juan Islands with director, co-star and crew for a brisk 12-day shoot to mine sisterly relations for intimate insights and humour. Your Sister's Sister kicks into gear with a “meet cute” scenario, when Blunt's buoyant Iris dispatches best friend Jack – still despondent a year after the death of this brother – for a soul-renewing sojourn at her family's remote holiday cabin. When he arrives, he finds her sister Hannah already there – they share a tequila-fuelled one-night stand (lasting, hilariously, all of eight seconds: “Sorry I squealed,” remarks Jack. “Do you want to snuggle?”) and then torment each other with the ifs, whys and buts of telling Iris when she turns up unannounced.
The three actors are flawless, Duplass typically comical and chatty, Blunt warm and interesting. But it's DeWitt, taking over from a late-departing Rachel Weisz, who stirs the deepest feelings, nailing her role as the older, quieter and more abrasive sister just emerging from a seven-year lesbian relationship (the pair's diverging accents are swiftly explained to settle audience nerves about one being British and the other American). Although mostly locked into one beautiful location, Shelton finds occasion to air the story out, notably in a bold seven-minute-plus dialogue-free montage that comes after sibling discord inevitably flares.
But the effortlessly naturalistic dialogue is where Your Sister's Sister particularly registers. From an opening sequence in which Jack punctures rose-tinted recollections of his brother at a memorial gathering to vegan Hannah trying to impress Iris and Jack with her dairy-free pancakes, it's always insightful, probing and gloriously amusing.
Shelton's upped the ante in terms of filmic polish as well, deftly exploiting the pleasant scenery and sprinkling her uncontrived navigation of the sibling bond with Vinny Smith's simple but effective score. A lovely example of what a surefooted filmmaker can achieve with a game and talented cast and a generous, heartfelt story – demonstrable proof that small pleasures can be the most satisfying.