The Other Sister (1999)
Directed by Garry Marshall
Cast: Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Tom Skerritt, Giovanni Ribisi, Poppy
1999 130 minutes
Rated: (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 21, 1999.
"The Other Sister" is one of the most genuinely sweet love stories to come along in quite some time. Well-directed by Garry Marshall, the film, if anything, puts to an even larger shame the false sentimentality and writing of the recent "Message in a Bottle," for here you actually do believe that the two central characters are in love without having to suffer through one unbelievable tragedy after another.
At the start of "The Other Sister," Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis), a mildly retarded young woman in her early 20s, has just obtained a certificate from a special school she has gone to for a large chunk of the latter part of her life. Returning to her family's wealthy San Francisco home, and to her overprotective, but loving mother (Diane Keaton) and more understanding father (Tom Skerritt), Carla announces that she wants to be a veterinarian's assistant one day and also wants to go to the local Polytechnic school, even though it is primarily for people without a mental disability. On the first day there, she meets Daniel (Giovanni Ribisi), who also is mentally disabled, at the registration center and helps him out when someone calls him a "retard." Thus begins a delicate relationship between Carla and Daniel, both of which can understand the other person unlike anyone else, since they are both very much alike in their ways of thinking. Carla is intrigued to find out early on that Daniel has an apartment of his own, which his father is paying for while he is in school, and she decides that it's time she get an apartment herself.
It is difficult to describe the "plot" of "The Other Sister," since the film wisely has decided to be more of a character study between two people who, yes, do have a disability, but are able to love each other just like anyone else can. It is this aspect of the film that I appreciated the most, because the screenplay, by Garry Marshall and Bob Brunner, does not look upon or treat the characters of Carla and Daniel as "different," nor do they want to make us feel pity for them. Quite the contrary, they are regarded as regular people who do have a handicap to deal with in their lives but not when dealing with each other. The dialogue between the two also never feels anything short of exact and accurate, and through their actions we quickly are allowed to care very much about them, while we also can laugh with joy at their veritable innocence.
Juliette Lewis, always an interesting and talented actress (1991's "Cape Fear," 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," 1996's "The Evening Star"), gives a tour de force performance after being absent from the screen since 1996, and she proves here in spades that she is nothing short of a brilliant actress, one of the best of her generation. To substantiate this point, take a look at her in this film, and then view her as an unstable serial killer in 1994's "Natural Born Killers." If Lewis could not be classified as diverse, no one can, and if Academy Award members did not have such frustratingly short attention spans, Lewis would certainly garner a Best Actress nomination come next year, and there is no doubt in my mind that she would have this year if the picture had been released in December. To avoid short-changing Giovanni Ribisi, he also gives a completely believable performance and amazingly has a lot of chemistry with Lewis. As Carla's mother, Diane Keaton develops her character to be one that we don't always agree with since, after all, she is so overprotective, but also one that we can relate to and understand her reasoning behind certain judgements. And also lighting up the proceedings, even with a relatively small part, is Poppy Montgomery as one of Carla's sisters, who was the highlight of last year's otherwise badly-made comedy, "Dead Man on Campus." When, or if, Montgomery is ever cast in a lead role, I have no doubt that she will be able to pull it off, since she has already marginally salvaged one poor film and has made an impression here with only a limited amount of screen time.
Throughout "The Other Sister," the more dramatic moments are always skillfully done and, thankfully, never overly dramatic. In one particular scene where Daniel discovers he failed his school class, the film wisely uses a light emotional tone, avoiding simple melodrama, and therefore comes off as a far more effective and touching moment. Without giving away anything, another heartbreaking sequence, and one that admittedly did bring a few tears to my eyes, involved Daniel saying something very much inappropriate in front of a crowd, which brings Carla to a state of confusion, anger, and tears, and the following scene set in a parking lot between the two could not have been as powerful without the performances that director Marshall was able to get out of Lewis and Ribisi.
Although perhaps a bit overlong (with a running time of 130 minutes, a few scenes could have easily been edited out without losing anything substantial), "The Other Sister" is probably the most winning and joyful film I have seen so far in 1999. The love story element got me deeply involved in the characters, and the handling of the mental disability angle was subtle and intelligent. But what I will remember most, and will continue to remember throughout the year, is Juliette Lewis' flawless, lovely performance. Not even the nearly incomparable Meryl Streep could have done it any better, and that is, for sure, a testament to Lewis' wonderful abilities.
©1999 by Dustin Putman