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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Your Sister's Sister' would find a better home on stage

Your Sister's Sister

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

After five largely shapeless Mumblecore flicks (and an impressive episode of "Mad Men"), writer/director and part-time actor Lynn Shelton finally delivers a feature film worthy of our time. As something that would have probably worked better on stage, the ingeniously titled "Your Sister's Sister" still manages to rise above the usual static of sparse, dialogue-driven, low or no-plot stories.

While close to a dozen friends gather to acknowledge the first anniversary of the death of one of their buddies, the dead man's brother Jack (Mark Duplass) stands off to the side doing a slow burn. Once the gushing testimonials end, Jack adds his two-cent opinion of his brother and it's both mean and petty. Recognizing he's still depressed over the death, Jack's best friend (also the brother's last girlfriend) Iris (Emily Blunt) pulls him aside for a dose of tough love. She essentially orders him to chill while spending some alone time at her late father's secluded cabin on a Washington state island.

When Jack arrives he realizes there's someone else there -- Iris' American half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Freshly-scrubbed and scantily clad, Hannah has no idea Jack's there either and the resulting misunderstanding is just the first of many awkward, knowing, comical and unmistakably human moments that rarely take place in movies.

Starting out tentative and skittish, it turns out that these two people -- just recently strangers -- decide they like each other. Because Hannah is a lesbian and Iris' sister, the possibility of sex between the two would have been a non-issue. But that's before they downed almost an entire bottle of tequila.

Do you think you've been given too much plot? Well, you haven't. Knowing that Iris shows up unannounced the next morning still won't spoil anything for you. As with most crimes and some events which take place while under the influence, it's not the act itself that matters so much; it's the manner and intent of the cover-up. This is where "YSS" starts to get interesting.

In Mumblecore (an indie sub-genre which was more or less invented by Duplass and his brother Mark), actors are given situations in lieu of dialogue and told to "wing it." This can sometimes result in amazing improvisation but more often than not turns out to be rambling gibberish. It's not clear how much of "YSS" is scripted and how much is on-the-fly, which is a compliment to both Shelton and the actors. What is clear is that Shelton approached the story in a much more linear and traditional manner than she has in the past and while still "organic" it's cohesive and only sometimes veers off course.

Helping out immensely was putting the three leads on the same psychological turf. Each of them has their pluses but mostly they're a collection of self-doubt and apprehension. These aren't the kind of traits you'd like to have in a friend but in a movie setting, it's quite preferable. Shelton also goes out of her way by not giving away too much too soon. The actions of the characters are somewhat clear but their motives, by and large, are not. The story is as much a mystery as it is a dialogue-driven character study.

Setting the story on a desolate but tranquil island adds a great deal to the characters' collective uncertainty, not only about themselves but as they relate to each other. Being at a place and in a space such as this makes things clearer faster.

Appearing in his third film this month (and second this week -- "People Like Us"), Duplass is slowly but surely establishing himself as the go-to art-house romantic leading man. Perhaps too angular and scruffy to ever be cast in mainstream flicks as a lead, his dark, brooding features would make him an excellent choice for any villain.

Although good, the usually exquisite Blunt is the relative weak link in the chain here. Iris is almost too nice to be believable and Blunt (probably at Shelton's instruction) has her taken some of the sting out of her delivery.

Stepping in at the last minute for another unknown actress for unknown reasons, DeWitt expands on the approachable yet prickly-if-provoked title character she played in "Rachel Getting Married." Nearing 40, DeWitt is (sadly) unlikely to snare any lead roles in the future but could provide sturdy support for any director smart enough to cast her. (IFC)