As its very title suggests, My Sister’s Wedding is concerned not just with the institution of marriage, but also with a protagonist who is simultaneously at the film’s centre and on its sidelines.
When it comes to her family, Allison Valentine (Samantha Sayah) is always caught in between. She is the middle sister to older Sabrina (Shawna Brandle) who, married with children, has long since flown the coop, and to younger Tina (Lauren A. Kennedy) who is getting married on this very day. Allison is always having to mediate between her long-estranged mother Olivia (Jennifer Jiles) and father Big Al (Brian Donohue), who are both in different ways extremely demanding and high maintenance – and although single, she is involuntarily wedded to the family’s property rental business, less an equal or even a junior partner than a dependable employee taken entirely for granted.
Allison has a big plan finally to extricate herself from this oppressive arrangement – but before she can announce her wish to leave behind the family home and business and to become a Latin teacher, she is drawn into her relatives’ various schemes, all of which seem to be taking her ever further from her own goals. Much as writer/director Kenneth R. Frank’s feature debut Family Obligations (2019) revolved around a funeral, conversely this follow-up is concerned with a wedding (and a divorce). In fact the title Family Obligations might equally have served either film – both family comedies which deploy their humour to make serious underlying ideas more palatable. For caught in this conflict between family ties and her own small dreams of independence, Allison quips her way through every humiliation, weaponising her wit as a coping mechanism.
Meanwhile Big Al is Catholic and a traditionalist, and so refuses, even against the advice of his lawyer Derek (Isreal McKinney Scott), to divorce Olivia, even though they have been separated for 15 years and cannot stand the very sight of one another. Al has also, without consulting anyone, brought along his appetitive friend Father Carmine Esposito (Frank Failla) to officiate, despite the fact that Tina’s marriage to Aaliyah (Samanthia Nixon) is contrary to Church teachings and, as a home ceremony, is far from traditional. “I want you all to go out on your own way,” Al will later say, adding paradoxically, “but I want you to bring me with you.” When so many accommodations need to be made, it certainly helps to be in real estate.
In spite of the romantic surname, the Valentines’ home is a dysfunctional arena of intergenerational, even interracial tensions, where nobody seems capable of being direct about what they really want, so that all communications are reduced to secretive machinations and third-party negotiations, with long-suffering Allison seemingly stuck in the rôle of everyone’s chosen intermediary. Only when confessions and compromises are uncharacteristically made can this family move on, rewriting its own traditions and renewing its vows of commitment to one another.
This is low-budget filmmaking, and it occasionally shows: not just in the single-house location, which of course anchors the domestic themes, but also in the way that the speech can dip in and out, sometimes even in a monologue (like the priest’s), as though the sound has not been properly recorded and mixed. Fortunately, though, these are minor distractions in an ensemble film full of well-written wisecracks and richly drawn characters who all make each other’s lives hell – in the family way. Their endless arguments are ironised by a jaunty piano score of Goldberg Variations (courtesy of Bach) that place this modern family in a classical setting – even as the classicist Allison expressly compares her clan’s feuds to the Trojan War. After all, domestic disputes and the home truths that they reveal are timeless themes.
“I am an individual, but I am also part of a family,” states Tina near the film’s beginning. “If I cannot acknowledge both of those things and embrace that complexity, I cease to be what I am.” This is the key contradiction which, with good humour and not a little awkward discomfort, My Sister’s Wedding explores over one long day of supposed great joy but also of high stress, as the Valentines display behaviours which, despite being hilariously hyperbolised, are also all too alarmingly familiar.
“That’s not funny,” Allison will say, when her new brother-in-law Michael (Aaron Poon) pranks her at the altar. His response perfectly summarises the spirit of this film’s cringe-inducing comedy: ”Well you know, it just all depends on your perspective.” Allison may suffer, but viewed from a distance, her endless family troubles are very funny indeed.
strap: Kenneth R. Frank’s tensely cringe-inducing farce places its put-upon heroine at the clashing whims of her family
© Anton Bitel