||It often happens that small independent films are overpraised in many quarters simply because they aren’t big studio projects, despite the fact that they’re actually as artificial as a Hollywood rom.com would be. That’s the case with “Your Sister’s Sister,” writer-director Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to “Humpday,” which also got a lot of good press though it was, at best, mediocre.
This effort feels like a three-character play that’s been expanded—barely—into a movie script. Mark Duplass plays Jack, who embarrasses himself at a one-year anniversary gathering remembering his late brother Tom by recalling what a manipulative fellow his widely-beloved sibling was. His platonic best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), knowing that he needs to work through the grief that’s immobilized him, offers Jack the use of her father’s rustic hideaway for a while, and he agrees, only to find when he gets there (via bicycle) that it’s already occupied.
The unexpected resident is Hannah (Rosemarie Dewitt), Iris’ older sister, whom Jack meets “cute” when she spies him peering through a window and, thinking him a peeping Tom, comes after him with an oar. But soon they’re drinking together, and after getting soused they repair to bed, despite the fact that she’s a lesbian just split from her longtime girlfriend. The next morning who should show up but Iris?
The remainder of the movie is basically a drawn-out “comedy of errors,” with Jack desperately trying to keep his one-night stand a secret from Iris. The ultimate outcome—in which Jack finally accepts the fact that he’s in love with the girl who’s been his buddy for so long—is no more surprising in this context than it used to be in John Hughes’ high-school movies, like “Pretty in Pink” (though the genders are reversed, of course). There’s also a revelation about Hannah’s motivation that comes across more like a writer’s contrivance than a credible twist.
Along the way there are pauses for lots of lovely outdoors inserts (usually with sunlight glistening through the trees into the camera lens), sisterly reminiscences, and comic bits like arguments about mashed potatoes prepared by Iris (in which a dollop of butter enrages the vegan Hannah) or pancakes cooked up by Hannah (which the other two pretend to like, though they’re actually inedible). Some of the dialogue—partially fashioned from improvisation, as Shelton prefers—is amusing (especially in the initial scene at the group memorial for Tom). But most of it has a fairly perfunctory ring. A scene in which Jack lets his emotions come out by wrecking his bike, meanwhile, makes one feel more sympathy for the bike than for him.
The cast, it should be noted, give Shelton their all, and both Blunt and Dewitt are natural and engaging, with the latter rightly giving her character the harder edge. Duplass is likable too, though his limitations as an actor are more evident here than in the simultaneously-released “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a better film. And Mike Birbiglia does a choice turn as the eulogist in that initial scene. The crew, headed by cinematographer Benjamin Kasulka, also does a nice, if fairly conventional, job.
But even the title of “Your Sister’s Sister” sounds as forced as that of a run-of-the-mill Hollywood rom.com. With a different cast, a bigger budget, and some punched-up dialogue, it might have been made by Judd Apatow. Really.