Sister Cities is a 2016 drama about four sisters who return home to mourn a loss and come together in unexpected ways.
We all have baggage, accrued more with each passing year, a collection of rights and wrongs, good decisions and bad we’ve made in our efforts to get through the twists and turns of our own lives. Some of us carry that weight like a burden, some like a vendetta, and some with no care at all. With Sister Cities, the baggage tells the stories and brings with it a collision of heartaches and questions that leave this film a touching drama with some good performances and lots to talk about.
It starts in a bathtub as a woman lingers on the surface of the still water, staring contemplatively into the abyss beyond before sinking beneath the water. She is Mary (Jacki Weaver), the mother of four daughters who are at best distant, at worst estranged. Austin (Jess Weixler), is a once successful novelist, who wrote a book that touched her generation, and lives at home. She calls her siblings, who live in different places around the country, to tell them their mother has died. They all arrive on the same Friday afternoon and learn that Austin has been spending the time in a kind of stupor, living off microwave meals.
The sisters are Carolina (Stana Katic), who prefers to be called Carol. She is a lawyer on track to be the youngest judge in King County history, who naturally takes over legal responsibilities. Dallas (Michelle Trachtenberg), is an uptight, schoolteacher on the verge of divorce, and Baltimore (Troian Bellisario), is a free-spirited Harvard grad student. The girls are all daughters from four different marriages, from four men with diverse backgrounds and issues that have paved the paths of these women.
What they learn is that their mother is still lying in the tub, and that Austin hasn’t even called the police. When the cops do arrive, they find a book that is a manual for how to commit suicide and it sets off a series of questions among the girls, of which Austin holds the larger secret, that puts them on a singular path of accusations, betrayal, mistrust, confessions, and much more.
Directed by Sean Hanish, Sister Cities is a melodrama of course, and yet it handles it without the usual melodramatic flourishes, allowing the story to be about the characters rather than the situation. These are, by design, broadly-drawn stereotypes meant to separate the specific traits of each daughter, and much to the film’s credit, still allows them to be defined by the performances. While some of it rings a little incredulous, the woman are at the heart and carry this well along the tragic, unexpected, and moving journey that admittedly teeters on a few precarious edges.
Filmed like a staged play, set almost entirely within a large country-style home, it rolls out with slow speed at its start, and establishes the four leads with great sincerity as it scaffolds its way to a tumultuous third act. At its core, it’s a film that touches on the jagged relationships of five women that have never felt joined as a family, ironically having the loss of one bring them fully together. And while there are moments of humor, most especially left in the hands of Trachtenberg that feel out of place, it is the performances all around that keep it compelling.
Weaver is very good as a woman in decline, who lives with her choices. She has several strong moments that offer the right tone for what becomes her ultimate fate. The mother is played in flashback by Amy Smart, and it’s surprising how these little glimpses work to generate empathy and identity. Weixler, who has a larger role than the other sisters, is also very good, playing a daughter asked to participate in an impossible ordeal. While the need to have Carolina be such a great legal mind is a stretch, Katic has great presence as the elder sister who for a time was the only mother-figure the other girls could rely upon. Bellisario finds room too giving Baltimore a solid place in the story as well, her sister one caught in the middle of it all.
Sister Cities is an emotional film, one that leaves its male characters rightfully in the peripheral and wisely keeps them unnecessary for the plot to move forward. Alfred Molina shows up for a few minutes and Tom Everett Scott plays the hometown police officer who knows Carolina, but fortunately, neither become entangled in the story. This is about something else and as its last-act twist arrives, it comes with a solid punch, but is also slightly weakened by a dip into ill-timed comedy that almost derails the experience before fully recovering. Well worth a look.
Sister Cities (2016)
Director: Sean Hanish
Writer: Colette Freedman
Stars: Jess Weixler, Troian Bellisario, Stana Katic, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jacki Weaver