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?

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.

The British director Mike Leigh also famously develops his scripts during improvisations that take place in lengthy rehearsals, allowing the actors to gradually build the script. Leigh's films are the best of both worlds in that sense: They bear the spontaneity of improvisations as well as the careful craft of words that have been labored over. His 1993 masterpiece Naked seems like it's unfolding in front of you fresh and in the moment, no matter how many times you've seen it, yet David Thewlis's Johnny is as quotable as anyone Tarantino has ever dreamed up.

The more recent antecedents for Shelton's style are the oft-improvised film of the indie mumblecore movement of the '00s. But she, like the Duplass brothers (of whom this film's Mark Duplass is one half), is quickly shedding any ties to that loosely defined movement as their filmmaking becomes more elegant and assured. Mumblecore's shoot-from-the-hip aesthetic often made its films ramshackle and aesthetically uneven, but Shelton and the Duplasses are realizing that more rigorously structured stories and beautifully constructed visuals don't need to be the enemy of cinematic naturalism.

Your Sister's Sister is lovely to watch, and not just because of the dialogue. Shelton allows cinematographer Ben Kasulke to showcase the misty beauty of the Pacific Northwest setting. And when the characters are in conversation, Shelton largely dispenses with the tight close-ups of her last film, Humpday, in favor of wider, airier compositions that allow the actors literal room in the frame as well as artistic room to perform.

This philosophy allows actors to be much greater partners in the creative process, and as Shelton trusts more and more in the instincts of her performers, the work feels more free and more natural than ever before, even as the story itself takes on what is more recognizable as a traditional structure.

Duplass is a veteran of this kind of filmmaking, having starred in Humpday for Shelton and employing similar techniques in the films he makes with his brother Jay. Blunt and DeWitt, the bigger stars here, are accustomed to working in more controlled and scripted circumstances, but they handle the material just as adeptly.

The result is a film that is both warmly and naturally funny as well as uncomfortable and awkward. When these characters flirt or poke fun at one another over drinks or dinner, it feels like the authentic flirtations of two people who have just met, or the banter of two sisters who have known each other their entire lives. No one here may ever have the perfect, quotable comeback, but how often do any of us? Every time a character fumbles around for the right words, they become less like actors reading a script and more like reflections of ourselves.