Can you believe that only two American women have ever been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category? Two. Awards are too often lazily used as some sort of actual shorthand barometer of quality and consensus—Jesus, people, Crash won, which should have eliminated that notion forever—but still: Two? John Singleton has been nominated for Best Director. M. Night Shyamalan has been nominated for Best Director. Roberto freaking Benigni has been nominated for Best Director. In the history of the Oscars, in the history of movies, only two American woman have received Best Director nominations? Apparently all Oscar voters are Tucker Max. (I was going to make a Mad Men reference there, but I didn't want to upset Scocca.)
The first of those was Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation—in 2003!—and the second was Kathryn Bigelow, who actually won, for The Hurt Locker. These two women directed films about a rich famous actor's midlife crisis and an Iraqi bomb squad in which the most prominent female character was Evangeline Lilly in soft focus, her perfect skin occasionally creasing into something resembling worry. That has been it. When you look over the landscape of American film, outside of those two, there aren't many high-level female directors to choose from. Julie Taymor's gone too crazy; Nicole Holofcener's too modest and small; you'd count Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron only if you were married to Tom Hanks. Alas, the only two I'd consider truly serious are Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and my dark-horse candidate who honestly might be one of my 10 favorite American filmmakers working right now, Lynn Shelton, whose new film Your Sister's Sister opens Friday. I think she's going to win one of those Oscars someday; she's the real deal.
Your Sister's Sister isn't going to be that winner; it's too tiny and shambling, too Duplass-y. But you can see where Shelton is gonna take this someday. The movie tells the small story of Jack (Mark Duplass), an aimless Seattleite still mourning the death of his brother who accepts an invitation from his best friend (and his brother's ex) Iris (Emily Blunt) to get away for a long weekend at a cottage in the woods. Unexpectedly, Iris's lesbian sister (Rosemarie Dewitt) is also staying there. Hijinks, romance, and misunderstandings ensue.
Now, it's pretty difficult to come up with a more twee premise than that, and to be sure, there is a lot of winsome bike riding in this movie. But it transcends its basic premise—and subsequent plot push-and-pull—thanks to Shelton's almost otherworldly ability to capture raw, near-subliminal performances from her actors. Shelton has talked in the past about her desire to use a "performance-centered set" to capture "genuine authenticity," and she's preternaturally skilled at it. There's a structured story, almost too structured, guiding the events of Your Sister's Sister, but you'll be forgiven for barely noticing; the interaction of the three leads is so natural and convincing that you get completely lost in it. These feel like people you know, people you've known for years, instantly. The movie doesn't really introduce these characters as much as just plop you down right in the middle of their lives. You begin caring about them without realizing why; you're pulling for them as if you know them, as if you're not watching a movie at all.
Particularly considering how many third-act problems Your Sister's Sister has, this is a serious achievement; Shelton's almost able to sell a ridiculous late twist simply because we feel like close friends with these people, and, hey, haven't our closest friends shocked us with their behavior out of nowhere sometimes? Being able to make you instantly identify and adore one's characters, while never making anything the actors do anything that resembles "performance," is a rare, rare tool in one's belt, and Shelton makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. It's similar to what she pulled off in Humpday—a movie I like more than this one—in which two lifelong best friends (Duplass and Joshua Leonard) make a wager that they'll do a porn film together and are afraid to back away from it. That film felt just as natural as this one, if less wedded to plot machinations. The two films give the viewer the feeling of being in the room while the movies are going on, watching two old friends figure themselves out.
I'm not sure what Shelton's "performance-based sets" consist of, but whatever she'd doing, it's clearly working. "Reality" is a concept almost every filmmaker is striving for—and certainly every indie filmmaker from Seattle is—but I've yet to find anyone working today who's as good at it as Shelton. She's basically a female, non-asshole John Cassavetes, but interested in people who are sunnier, less self-destructive, more curious and searching. Your Sister's Sister is a move toward the mainstream from Shelton—she's also been directing episodes of Mad Men and New Girl, and her next film, Touchy Feely, stars Ellen Page and Dewitt—and eventually, she's gonna find a project that crosses over in a way this one won't and Humpday didn't. It's a real power to capture these sort of performances from actors, and somewhere down the line, the right cast and the right screenplay and the right cultural moment are going to align, and Shelton's gonna win herself an Oscar. She's too skilled not to. If I'm Reese Witherspoon, I get Shelton on the phone immediately and do whatever she tells me to. This is a massive talent. Hopefully she won't have to end up making movies about sad, middle-aged actors.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.