The Other Sister
1999, PG-13, 129 min. Directed by Garry Marshall. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Skerritt, Diane Keaton, Juliette Lewis.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 26, 1999
From Benny & Joon to Angel Baby to Forrest Gump and beyond, there has been no shortage of recent movies addressing the implications of (non-platonic) love among the mentally disabled. Somehow, though, all this laudable gusto for getting down to the nitty-gritty of a complex, challenging social issue has produced very few films that work at the base level of simple believability. In these movies, of which The Other Sister is a textbook example, disturbed or mentally impaired lovers' unconventionality is generally portrayed as the sole barrier to their acceptance as fully sexual beings. The blatant unfairness of this situation establishes an easy dramatic framework in which the opposition of well-intended normals reveals them to be, as it were, retards in matters of the heart. The Other Sister is basically the same song, umpteenth verse. Lewis plays Carla, a mildly retarded rich girl who's back with her family after spending most of her teen years at a school for “special” kids. This involuntary banishment was the doing of her neurotic, over-protective mother, Elizabeth (Keaton) who ramrodded the decision past strong objections from her husband (Skerritt) and two other daughters. Though mom's love is unquestioned, she's so warped by her guilt, control-freak tendencies, and overdeveloped maternal instincts that she can't even begin to grasp the concept of Carla as any kind of autonomous being. So when Carla, a proud and surprisingly self-aware young woman, starts demanding to go to a mainstream trade school, live in her own apartment and maybe even (gasp!) acquire a boyfriend or two, it all hits mom with the force of an Evander Holyfield haymaker. The real crisis comes when Carla, as feared, not only falls in love but picks a similarly impaired guy named Daniel (Ribisi) as her swain. From the standpoint of the father, sisters, friends, viewers, and basically every other living organism on the planet save for dear old mother, this love is a blessing from the gods. The romance, even the tentative sexual stuff, is innocent, demure, and shot against an exquisitely beautiful backdrop of Frisco Bay-area scenery. Daniel, needless to say, is the most benign creature imaginable, a largely asexual lad who seems to have far greater passion for marching band music than for the old in-out in-out. Who could object to this situation? No one, of course. The only tension, such as it is, comes from Elizabeth's glacial journey toward accepting her daughter as she is. Lewis' acting, though elaborately stylized in the way we've come to expect from her, deserves special commendation. A classic case of bravely firing all one's rockets in a losing battle, it's the kind of work that, in a better world, would earn some kind of special-recognition Oscar. Otherwise, there's little to recommend this movie, which is part and parcel with Marshall's schlock-dominated body of work, to anyone -- especially viewers who are still waiting for an honest, courageous examination of this latently powerful subject matter.