So, Like, Um, How True-to-Life Should Movie Dialogue Be?

The excellent Your Sister's Sister makes a convincing case for letting actors improvise their lines.

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Everyone has had that moment when the perfect snappy retort pops into the brain hours after when it would have been useful—call it the Jerkstore Problem. Characters in the movies, though, have smart comebacks queued up at all times, since writers have the benefit of those hours to write them. Would a real-world John Bender be able to fire back witty repartee at Principal Vernon as effectively as he does in The Breakfast Club?

Every time a character fumbles around for the right words, they become less like actors reading a script and more like reflections of ourselves.

Probably not, but would we want to see people interacting in the meandering, searching way that sets real conversation apart from the direction and purpose of movie dialogue? Lynn Shelton thinks the answer to that question is yes, and her latest film, Your Sister's Sister, is effective evidence that the emotional immediacy in the awkward rhythms of extemporaneous speech can often trump the art of the well-chosen word.

This is Shelton's fourth feature, and the director continues to work at perfecting her technique of building a movie through improvisations with her actors. The four with significant speaking roles in the film—Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, and Mike Birbiglia—are listed as creative consultants in the credits, and many moments on screen show the first times these actors have spoken these particular words, improvised based on the established intentions of the scene.

Early in the film, Jack (Duplass) arrives at a rural cabin belonging to the family of his best friend Iris (Blunt), wanting a few solitary days there to get his head together. A year has passed since the death of his brother, and as evidenced from the awkward scene he makes at a memorial gathering on the anniversary, he still hasn't processed his grief. But when he arrives, Iris's sister Hannah (DeWitt) is there, dealing with a loss of her own. The two near-strangers drown their sorrows in a bottle of tequila, and end up in bed together—which becomes extremely awkward when Iris shows up unexpectedly the next day, initiating the revelation of a whole slew of secrets among the trio.

Before any of that begins though, there is a scene in which Jack looks through the window and sees Hannah inside, which is a surprise since he thought he had the place to himself. As he considers how best to proceed, he lingers just a little too long, transfixed by this sudden glimpse at her unguarded private moments.

The film itself is much like that moment of Jack looking in on Hannah through the window—only we're Jack, witness to private actions and exchanges that often seem too real to be in the movies. The characters' rambling conversations interlock and bounce off one another reactively in ways that written scripts have difficulty replicating.

Shelton follows in a long tradition of directors who have attempted to eliminate the inherent artificiality of cinema by embracing the unexpected. John Cassavetes's films were scripted, but he let his actors move and interact as the scene inspired them. With the actors dictating camera movements rather than the other way around, there was an air of documentary realism in his films that was heightened by the raw-nerve emotions of his storytelling.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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