The traditional family unit is under attack from all sides. Gay marriage, modernity, the messiness of mankind, and the internet have all worked to disarm the potency of the nuclear family unit. And it couldn’t be a more welcome change. In the new film, Your Sister’s Sister out tomorrow, director Lynn Shelton lays out what the new family unit may look like: a man, a lady, a lady’s sister. The man, in this case, is Mark Duplass, he of mumblecore and The League fame, who plays Jack, an aimless man mourning the loss of his brother. His best friend is a lady named Iris, the former girlfriend of his brother, played by Emily Blunt. Her somewhat more troubled sister, Hannah, is played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Without giving too much away, suffice to say, Jack ends up going to Iris’ family cabin to clear his mind, but whilst there he encounters Hannah, who is dealing with her own messy breakup from her girlfriend. The two of them promptly, and drunkenly, have effective but unsatisfying sex. Iris arrives shortly thereafter. And yet, though this sounds like the stuff of melodrama, the resultant awkward positions into which the family contorts itself are never sensationalized. Instead, what emerges is a thoughtful, honest reflection of the flexibility of the modern family.
The idea of an unconventional ménage isn’t new, of course. Throughout history, households have found peculiar accommodations. In fact, not too far from where Ms. Blunt grew up in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, unconventionality was the norm in the early 20th century. The writer Vita Sackville-West lived there for a time with Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard. Ezra Pound also found a pleasant situation with a concert pianist named Olga Rudge and his wife, Dorothy Shakespear. But of late, at least cinematically, families have trended heteronormative. Any deviation from the Ma, Pa, and Child equation has been either censured or sensationalized. This might track with a more general narrowing of what family means, or it might have more to do with Hollywood’s risk–averse studio system or, because the latter tracks the former in endless focus groups, it’s a recursive restriction.
That’s what makes Your Sister’s Sister such a breath of fresh air. The indie film is less concerned with the defining than with the describing. We asked director Lynn Shelton, and her stars, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, to lunch at the New York restaurant Tertulia, chef Seamus Mullen’s much-lauded Spanish restaurant, to share a family meal and discuss the film and what the modern family means to them.
Both love triangles and family dramas are well-defined genres. But how did this strange hybrid take place?
Lynn Shelton: Mark Duplass called me up with a kernel of an idea for the story. Originally though, instead of his character going up to Iris’ family getaway and finding her older sister there, it was going to be her mother. But that would have taken the film in a whole different direction. So I suggested we change it to a sister—that way we can have that sibling relationship to play around with. The other way felt too Greek.
Rosemarie DeWitt: And you can’t really recover from that.
Emily Blunt: That image of your best friend shagging your mum!
LS: Yeah, it would be a little bit much. But also I just observed a lot of really interesting dynamics between sisters. The relationship between siblings is just so multilayered. They’re incredibly bonded and connected, but then there is the history, the baggage, the little resentments, the jealousy, and the competition.
RD: It’s funny because I don’t really think of this as a movie about family so much, do you?
LS: People gravitate towards that because of the ending when the characters end up living together.
What drew me to the film is the idea that strange things happen in families with people who love each other, and it’s not the end of the world—or of the family.
LS: Hopefully. But a lot of times when something strange happens, that’s not the case. There are lots of families where the brother is not speaking to the sister.
RD: With Iris and Hannah, this thing happened that could potentially pull them apart. Neither have been that close to the other; they have a different mother. But there’s so much love underneath there that they really fight for their sisterhood, and they come out richer.
EB: Love is the bond in this movie. Love is the reason why they can forgive and why they can move on and why they can recover. That’s what we all felt when making it. Love is ultimately the thing that will bring you through.
LS: The desire to connect is so strong in both of them. You can see it the first time that Iris climbs in the bed to cuddle with Hannah, or the first time they see each other, they’re so genuinely excited to see each other.
EB: The shorthand you have, the familiarity and the history you have with someone that you’ve grown up with, becomes even more important when you become lost. I found in my life that when I’m going through transitions or differences, I yearn for that history I have with someone. It can be so cozy, like a constant hug.
RD: When you say that, it
makes me rethink what I
said about this not being
a family film. It is about family. All these people are looking for family. There’s a primal need to be part of a family.
That shorthand can go two ways. Sometimes you can just regress into your immature childhood selves. Think about going home for the holidays.
RD: That’s true. As soon as you walk in the door, the volume goes up to ten on everybody’s behavior. Everything becomes like nails on a chalkboard.
EB: [Laughs] People resort to teenage behavior that worked for them within the family at that age.
LS: Oh yeah. All the patterns re-emerge. We just fall right into the old roles. Something that was on my mind when we made the film is that how a family looks can be flexible. In culture, although it seems like this flexibility is being seen more and more, we wanted to put out something that isn’t generally seen on film.
EB: But that’s the way families are, more and more. I have a friend whose mum ran away with his best friend’s father, so he had three stepsisters who were also his best friends. And now they’re all friends.
RD: I saw the same thing happen in high school. But I grew up in Jersey, so the two sisters never spoke again, and they wrote dirty words on the stepmother’s driveway. That’s the difference between London and Jersey. An unusual family situation is becoming the norm. Before, when we were 30, we’d be done. That’s it. But now you live so long, it makes sense you’d have one, two, three families.
EB: That’s why I think, no matter how far out the premise seems, the film is quite a relevant peek into the messiness of family life.
RD: That’s what Lynn has done so well in her last two movies, Humpday and My Effortless Brilliance. She takes a premise that most people would shtick up and instead she asks, “Where’s the truth in this? What would have really happened?”
EB: “How would this make you feel?”
RD: Yes, she asks, “How would this play out? Could you recover from it?” Then you have a really interesting puzzle. Hopefully what the audience responds to is the humanity in the movie, the relationships, and the moments between sisters or best friends.
How much does the relationship between Iris and Hannah resonate with your relationship with your siblings?
EB: I have two sisters and a brother. My older sister is here in the States and my younger two siblings, who are quite a bit younger than I am, still live in London. I’m so incredibly close to all of them and we’re all fiercely protective of each other, but I grew up in a very raucous household. There were always voices soaring and heads crashing. Of course, that’s all part of it. We were each other’s biggest protectors and probably each other’s biggest piss–takers. It crushes my heart if one of them is going through something hard. It consumes me. But then at the same time there have been moments where I drive them crazy and they drive me crazy.
LS: There’s that dynamic in the movie, too. Hannah does something that is so deeply hurtful to Iris, but the road to forgiveness is difficult to find.
EB: Exactly. Sometimes you just have to ride it out, say you’re sorry, and hope they’ll come back.
RD: You don’t have a whole lot of options. Usually the more you say in those situations, the further you dig your own hole. Sometimes it is best just to make some food.
EB: Recovery can be really awkward. That’s what I love between these two people in the film. It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. You’re so lost for words in that realm. I found it such a relief to get to play that, because that is what happens, and normally you’ve got this big recovery in movies where everyone, in a very self-aware way, says how they messed up and what they need to do to work on themselves. We didn’t have that. In sisterly relationships, you just have to ride it out. You know everything about the other person. You understand everything about them. You know them so well, it’s impossible to say anything.
LS: Some of my favorite acting in the movie actually is when the two of you are sitting side-by-side eating at the table. Emily, the way that you pass her something without looking at her. The way you say, “I made some potatoes. Do you want some?” You don’t look at her directly but, after a beat, you glance up and then look down again. It’s amazing. And the way that Iris just sort of accepts that, and takes the potatoes.
RD: That moment is so real to me. I remember one time, when I was young, I did something so horrendous and my mother was so upset that when I got home from school, there was a card on my bed that my mother wrote that said, “For the time being, you’ll agree, silence is golden.”
RD: But it’s the same way in the movie. There was nothing that Hannah could say to make it up to Iris.
EB: It’s too big. Sometimes it’s more effective not to talk it out, which is why the little gestures speak volumes.
Not to give away the end, but I remember it being somewhat ambiguous as to how Iris, Hannah, and Jack are going to proceed. Am I completely off?
RD: It’s a little ambiguous.
LS: It’s unambiguously ambiguous. I really feel it’s about the intention. It’s really more about these three people who are willing to make that leap.
RD: These three people came in contact with each other and are forever changed. They are new characters at the end of the movie.
That change is especially pronounced in Jack, who begins adrift and ends up anchored.
RD: He comes back to life. You know he comes alive and draws on some forgotten courage. He becomes a human being again.
LS: I’ve noticed that, as difficult and painful as going through the crisis is, you often get through the other side, and it really does take you to a better place.
RD: Somehow it always seems to be the exact thing that you need.