Finally saw writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister last night. She goes for a story that screenwriters in the independent film market keep trying for and rarely pull off: a three person drama (more or less) set in one location (mostly) with a simple problem (that proves to be not-so-simple). I’m personally envious because I’ve been telling friends for years that we should write stories that take place in vacation houses and resort towns in the off-season, to make it simple getting locations and places to house the cast and crew.
The first act goes something like this: Jack gives an awkward toast that nearly kills a eulogy party for his brother who’s been dead for a year; his friend/dead brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris consoles him and offers her dad’s vacation house on what looks like Orcas Island, for Jack to have some reflection time to get over his moping depression; Jack goes, only to discover that Iris’ lesbian big sister is already using it as a grieving hut to get over her own loss, a break up from a seven year relationship; Jack and Hannah proceed to get hammered on tequila, and do what sad, drunk people do when left alone in the woods, and have lousy sex; the next morning, Iris unexpectedly comes, and Jack and Hannah must hide the fact that they hooked up.
So far so good. The only dull moment is the meeting of the two lovers: he catches a glimpse of her near nakedness, makes a noise and scares her, and provokes a testy exchange that, as the cliché goes, foreshadows their hooking up. It’s the only lazy choice in a gorgeously sleek first act…or is it?
What I love about Shelton’s script is her restraint, specifically how she breaks the rules by waiting to turn the screws tighter. Soon after Iris arrives she falls short of discovering that Jack and Hannah had hooked up, and only then does she start confiding in Hannah that she’s in love with Jack. Now Hannah has come around to play along with Jack’s obsession, keeping their dalliance a secret from Iris. I could see the heads nodding in a script workshop if some dramatic structure fetishist were to say how much more impact Iris’ arrival would have if the viewer knew already that she was in love with Jack; it might even be advisable, the workshop might conclude, to add a fourth character in whom Iris confides before going to the island.
Shelton, however, throws the dice and figures we’ll be engaged enough by the boiler plate indie drama first act, before she raises the stakes higher so that we, like Hannah, start hoping Iris doesn’t find out. Then for a time that seems like it may not be enough.
The problem with secrets, in plots, is that there are only two obvious things to do with them: keep them, or reveal them. (I suppose blackmail and murder are additional possibilities, but we’re talking about the pinot noir set contemplating their love lives here, not a struggle between mafia dons.) Even our hopes for a romance to bud between Iris and Jack, the two sweetest, most vulnerable people in the story, isn’t enough to sustain a whole feature, and minutes 45-60, out of 90, begin dragging just a bit: “So what if she does find out?” Well, it gets a lot better in a hurry.
I’ll leave it to other bloggers to illuminate what it says about our generation of writers that when we put lesbians in major indie films they screw men. Partly I think independent films are made for a class of literate people whose most aggressive endeavors are sexual misbehavior. We don’t know what it means to assassinate rivals or to cut our illegitimate children out of our wills; the worst thing we do to each other, by and large, is seduce one another’s loved ones. Since the world of our dramas has become the integrated hetero-homo family or peer group, a lesbian crossing the line provides just enough surprise to confound easy expectations. Maybe in a few years we’ll see a spate of films about straight guys who go “gay for a day,” but till then lesbians are the final frontier.