Nancy Mitford: Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity.
Decca Mitford: But sisters ARE life’s cruel adversity!
(Quoted in Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters)
LIKE ELIZABETH BENNET, Hilton Als, and Jazmine Hughes, I have four sisters. My original plan for this piece was to see the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters with my sisters over the holidays and write a kind of conversational film review — a transcription of all of our during-the-movie snarky whispers and post-movie summary judgments. On Sisters, by sisters!
I texted them all about it before my trip home in December, and they were open to the idea — especially since I was paying — though they were not exactly enthusiastic.
Second Sister: I was just thinking how awful that movie looked! But if it’s free, heck, why not.
First Sister (Me): Say snarky things I can quote!
Second Sister: They’ll be copyrighted.
When I arrived home, it turned out that my sisters didn’t actually need to see the movie in order to start getting snarky about it.
Fourth Sister: Tina and Amy are like, “We’re strong women writers and actors in Hollywood blah blah blah.” No you’re not. You’re racist as fuck and you’re kinda boring.
First Sister: Yay, that’s great! Let me write that down.
Though they were far more interested in seeing Creed (Fifth Sister: Yes plz all I want for Christmas is biceps), we made vague plans to see Sisters the day after Christmas. But then, being real-life sisters — not cooperative figments of my writerly imagination — they rebelled. Or, to be more accurate, they fell into the kind of mildly resistant inertia that is one of our primary sister stances when we all get together: immobile, immovable, not really interested in anything that would require putting on a bra and going out into the world.
Third Sister: If I were to sum up the last 20 years of my relationships with any of my four sisters, it would not be a highlights reel. I love all my sisters and have fond memories with each, but the relationships — in their various states — have been shattered and restored and hewn by tragedies and births and deaths and near-deaths and hospitalizations and marriage and years of absence and thousands of miles of distance. The highlights for me are the times when we are all in the same place, which happens less than once a year, and we spend like an hour together — hanging out in sweatpants and drinking coffee — that is totally devoid of conflict.
The five of us live in four states on two coasts, and over the decades we have done devastating and unforgettable things to each other. We’ve professed our dislike for each other; we’ve unfriended and blocked each other; we’ve abandoned the family to move far away; we’ve dropped out; we’ve blacked out; we’ve needed to be bailed out; we’ve decided not to invite each other to our weddings; we’ve used that gentle patronizing tone that grates like a shredder; we’ve gone straight for the jugular; we’ve broken each other’s codependent hearts.
Second Sister: We’ve been pretty bad, but we’ve never stolen each other’s boyfriends or burned each other’s manuscripts.
But when we find ourselves back in the falling-apart house we grew up in, we revert to a kind of timeless tableau of togetherness, as if some kind of malevolent (or benevolent?) fairy had stopped the clocks, surrounded our house with insurmountable brambles, and frozen us in place with our mugs in our hands.
Second Sister: Our love has life-choking roots that are tangled underground.
At times like these, we become almost interchangeable, finishing each other’s phrases, cuddling each other’s children, wearing our hair in matching messy blond topknots, and taking our coffee the exact same way (2% milk; no sugar). We are sisters beneath the skin: we have matching tattoos, five anchors to moor us in harbor. And of course I am one of us, even though I moved far away over a decade ago and sometimes suffer from sister imposter syndrome. So there I was after Christmas in my sweats with my coffee, glad to sit around hour after hour and snark about nothing and take turns holding the adorable six-month-old baby that one of my sisters had made.
Part of me wanted to get out of the house and watch a movie and write, but mostly I didn’t want to break the spell, and I knew I couldn’t even if I tried.
So stuck, so static, so trapped in a pattern.
So familiar, so effortless, so intimate.
In the end I saw Sisters with a friend when I got back to New Haven, and it turns out that a friend was the perfect person to see it with, since at its best it’s really a movie about friends.
As they do in their 2008 film Baby Mama, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey play an odd couple: a financially precarious, fertile party girl and a financially stable, childless uptight woman. But in Sisters, the roles are flipped, with Amy as the tightly wound neurotic and Tina as the wild child. In both movies, the plot, such as it is, pushes both women toward the middle, with the party girl learning to embrace maternal responsibility and the prim woman learning to get drunk and get laid. Problems solved!
Baby Mama is a pretty joyless variation on the theme. Tina’s character is constrained by the role of a conventional rom-com heroine, with none of Liz Lemon’s (or Tina’s) abrasive eccentricity, and Amy’s character is a flat, white-trash stereotype. Their chemistry is nonexistent. Sisters, on the other hand, mainly consists of a mellow succession of montages showcasing Tina and Amy’s comfy, bouncy pleasure in each other’s company: a road-trip montage, a trying-on-slutty-clothes montage, a playing-with-1980s-toys-in-their-childhood-bedroom-montage, a shopping-for-party-supplies-montage, a getting-crazy-at-the-last-party-they-throw-in-their-childhood-home-with-their-high-school-friends montage.
They bump bellies. They give each other pep talks. They read their diaries to each other in the bathtub. They are each other’s best wing-women. It’s an SNL sketch mixed with a Golden Globes spiel. It’s not really going anywhere in particular, but it’s kind of a hoot.
This low-stakes celebration of playfulness is what the film does best. And on a very basic level, it is nice to see female friends in their 40s taking up so much screen-time and having so much ridiculous fun: not just Tina and Amy but also Samantha Bee and Rachel Dratch as drunken revelers, and an especially glorious Maya Rudolph as Brinda, the ultimate party-crasher. And the sisters’ romantic interests — a warm, unusually understated Ike Barinholtz and a deadpan John Cena — are a delight.
But incredibly, during all this happy, loopy time, we’re expected to believe that the sisters are reeling from a major unresolved loss. Tina’s teenage daughter has recently run away because of Tina’s chronic irresponsibility, homelessness, and substance abuse, and Tina has no idea where she is. Eventually we learn (spoiler alert) that Amy has been taking care of her homeless niece and keeping it a secret from Tina. This is a complex family drama that might be expected to plunge us into the depths of thwarted maternal feeling and ancient sisterly rivalry. But for most of the movie, this intimate history of loss and betrayal casts little to no shadow on the sisters’ easy, breezy, montage-y relationship.
The vast chasms of difference separating the sisters — chasms of class, educational achievement, sexual experience, solvency, sobriety, closeness with their parents, closeness with their niece or daughter — are basically a nonissue. Even in the midst of a crisis, these strangely friendly sisters can access nostalgia without navigating the minefields of memory. They can give each other advice without smashing eggshells underfoot. There’s some mud wrestling tacked on toward the end for belated conflict, but it’s too little, too late.
It is obvious throughout that Tina and Amy, who are best friends in real life, have zero actual sisters.
Third Sister: I saw promotional interviews they did about the movie and they said they’d been friends for 20 years so they were basically sisters. The interviewer asked if they’d ever fought, and they said no. ROFL. Sisters, my ass.
First Sister: Sisters are like the OPPOSITE of friends!!!
Tina and Amy’s friendship — founded on writing and work, ticking steadily and undramatically into its third decade — resembles the friendships I’ve loved the most. “Tina reminds me of how far I have come. She knew me when. When we are together I feel strong and powerful,” Amy writes in Yes Please. And later: “Tina shows her love for you by writing for you. I can’t tell you how many times she wrote something special and wonderful for me.” Meanwhile in a chapter of Bossypants subtitled “One in a series of love letters to Amy Poehler,” Tina remembers her delight when Amy shut down a male SNL performer who was criticizing her comedy on the grounds that it wasn’t cute. Tina recalls, “I was so happy. […] I remember thinking, ‘My friend is here! My friend is here!’[…] [W]ith Amy there, I felt less alone.”
This is friendship as I know it now: an alliance that sustains ambition and endeavor, a mutual enthusiastic appreciation society, a balm for loneliness. It’s what Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins celebrate on Galentine’s Day with waffles, and what my friends and I celebrate on Galentine’s Day with tomato soup cake. It’s a far cry from the enervating, self-dissolving fun-house mirror of sisterhood.
Friendships can be fraught, of course, and sisterhood can be fun.
Third Sister: Not all sister relationships resemble Hopper sister relationships.
And not all friendships resemble Fey-Poehler friendships.
I’ve lost close female friends twice since I grew up. Neither of my lost friends had sisters, and each of them found in our friendship a scope for sister-style ardor, recrimination, and fury that I ultimately couldn’t share. Our intimacy couldn’t bear its own weight. There are estranged sisters, but there are no former sisters. Even a dead sister is always a sister. But these two women are not my estranged friends; they are no longer my friends at all. When they cut ties, there was no root system to keep us connected or grow us back together. Sisterhood often has to sustain things that can end or prevent intimate friendships: distance, betrayal, unkindness, dislike, or a backbreakingly heavy backstory. And the miraculous and absurd thing is that it often does.
Sisterhood cinema is a twisted and heart-twisting tradition, encompassing Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, A Stolen Life, The Parent Trap, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the sisters movies that I love the most combine laughter with panic. I’m thinking of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a raunchy screwball farce about sisters supporting each other through a catastrophic unplanned pregnancy; the wry melo-dramedy Holiday, in which an agoraphobic Katharine Hepburn has to decide whether to steal her sister’s fiancé, Cary Grant; and the unsettling and intense Your Sister’s Sister, an independent film with a telenovela plot, in which the prospect of pregnancy pulls sisters together and pushes them apart. Then there are the movies I watch over and over with my sisters: Three Smart Girls, which is about sisterhood as an embattled conspiracy, and White Christmas, which supplies lyrics that sum up sisters’ capacities for loyalty, ruthlessness, and betrayal: “Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister, and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!”
Family comedies thrive on love-hate relationships, with their tension and ambivalence and creatively worded insults, and I couldn’t help hoping that Tina and Amy would bring some of the bite of Mean Girls to their contribution to the genre. But Sisters is emotionally simple and slack. And stories about substance abuse and codependence require deeper wounds and darker humor in order to earn their overdetermined happy endings. Sisters is a substance abuse story, whether it wants to admit it or not, and its belief that partying problems can be solved by a party is an unfunny joke.
Despite its superficial take on family relationships, Sisters was a more or less fine way to kill time in a theater. What it really needed — besides a better part for the talented Greta Lee, who is scandalously consigned to a series of troubling Asian stereotypes (heavily accented manicurist, exoticized sex object, white guy’s trophy wife) — was more textured subtext and substantive conflict. If only it had chosen to do more with the classic Jane Austen potential of odd-couple sisters and the deep complexity of its ostensible story. But it mostly squandered both. Like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an “online community” featuring an upbeat meme stream of pep talks and self-esteem, Sisters celebrates a friendly kind of sisterhood that is all girl power and no grief. It’s a feminist fantasy that depends on denying the difficulty of intimacy and the combustibility of women together.
Amy and Tina are friends who love each other and who have never fought once in 20 years, and that is great. But when I think about my numerous sisters and the number we have done on each other, I am conscious of a different kind of bond. We are tied together by our boundary-blurring identification, our unwilled oceanic empathy, our mutually defining dependence (why do you get to be the smart one, and I have to be the pretty one), our intimate observations shot like perfectly aimed arrows, our whispered conspiracies, our rapturous reunions, our fracked bedrock connections, and our resentful and mostly unspoken mutual respect. We have not been friends, but, as one sister says about another in Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, we have been “enemies who loved each other.”