Other Sister, The

The Other Sister, directed by Garry Marshall, tells the story of Carla
Tate (Juliette Lewis), a young woman of 22 or 23 who, because she is mentally
retarded, has spent most of her life in a “special school” and is now coming
home, as the picture begins, to live with her well-to-do family in San
Francisco. Her mother, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton) is overprotective of her and her
father, a dentist played by Tom Skerritt, though more sympathetic, is
too weak to moderate his wife’s smothering tendencies. She is especially
exercised, as we might expect, when Carla falls in love with Daniel McMahon
(Giovanni Ribisi), who is also retarded, and the point of this feel-good movie
is gently to steer Carla past her mother and into normal life with just a few
non-jolting bumps along the way.

Its purpose, in other words, is not to shock us (as real art does) with
unexpected realities, or to make us see something new in the world, something
true and something real, for the first time. Like propaganda and other forms of
pseudo-art, it is instead an appeal to complacency, designed to make us feel
good about ourselves and comfortable and self-righteous. We come away not with
an increased sensitivity to others but with an increased pride in our own
sympathies, engaged as they are by the charming Carla and artificially compared
with those of her overprotective mother. Mom is meant to stand for all the
prejudices that we, wise and fortunate people, have happily overcome. And, as if
it were not enough that we were being offered the opportunity for smugness about
our superior sympathy for the retarded, we get another smug injection for being
more tolerant than mom is of another sister, Heather (Sarah Paulson), who is a
lesbian. Her mother actually thinks Heather will “outgrow” her sexual

It’s not hard for us to feel more enlightened than that. But the
result is an excess of self-congratulation which makes the inevitable humor of
Carla’s and Daniel’s lovable stupidity seem to me offensively patronizing. Much
of it is excessively cute, especially that concerned with the couple’s sexual
initiation. “I wonder who thought up sex in the first place Daniel?” asks

“I think it was Madonna, actually,” replies Daniel.

This is too pat, too perfect, too calculated. Too adorable by a long way.
Just like the movie. This doughy sentiment, it is true, is leavened by a bit of
ham-fisted satire of Mom’s less than noxious social snobbery. Carla is made
miserable trying to learn to play tennis because mom says that “all well-bred
girls play tennis, chess or bridge.” She tries to introduce Carla into the
Junior League set, and she lets all the dogs loose at an animal charity fete.
Mom is also hard on a third sister (Poppy Montgomery) for being content as a
second grade teacher instead of aspiring to teach at the college level. But such
stuff is only there to give mom a few politically incorrect attitudes to
overcome along the way to complete acceptance of Carla’s romance and eventual
marriage with Daniel — and, not just coincidentally, the other daughter’s
lesbianism. At last mom learns to be as wise and tolerant as we are, and so all
is well with the world.

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