The Tates are the average, highly-affluent White American family. Elizabeth Tate (Diane Keaton), is intelligent and involved in various charities and organizations. Her husband, Dr. Radley Tate (Tom Skerritt), is a successful dentist and recovering alcoholic. They have three beautiful daughters. There’s the oldest, Heather (Sarah Paulson), a brilliant young lawyer whose status as a proudly out lesbian causes tension with her mother. There’s Caroline (Poppy Montgomery), the often overlooked but recently engaged middle child. And then there’s Carla (Juliette Lewis). Carla is The Other Sister, the Tates’ mentally disabled youngest child.
Though her disability is never named (the film alludes to Carla having both a highly-functional, and highly emotional form of autism), it is… inconvenient and stressful enough for her parents that, at a young age, her parents send her to a boarding school specifically for children with mental disabilities. After receiving her certification from her school, Carla reluctantly comes back to a house that doesn’t feel like home and a family whom she is distant from in so many ways. Elizabeth, though worried about how Carla will adjust, is happy to have her daughter home, but quickly falls into her old habits of infantilizing her now very much adult daughter; the harder Carla tries to assert her independence, the closer her mother insists on holding her.
Their petty fights escalate to critical mass when Carla starts attending a local polytechnic school and meets Danny (Giovanni Ribisi), a similarly disabled young man, and the two start dating. Danny doesn’t have the supportive family or self-confidence that Carla does, and it impacts his academic career, his self-esteem, and his relationship with Carla. Elizabeth’s belief that Danny is not good enough for and cannot take care of Carla only drives a bigger wedge between her and her daughter.
The Other Sister is probably one of the most melodramatic films I’ve seen in theatres; prior to this, only the Lifetime Channel held such over-the-top emotions. Though the film is highly problematic in casting Lewis and Ribisi to play two mentally disabled characters, it almost makes up for this by proving how independent and efficient those dealing with autism can be. Carla does not want or need her hand held and more than being a family drama or romantic-comedy, this film is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s battle to be seen and heard, just as she is, and not as others would want her to be. Carla’s battle to live her life on her own terms is a triumph (albeit a sentimental and often corny one) to behold and The Other Sister reminds audiences that it isn’t anyone’s responsibility to make their existence more comfortable for anyone else.
I give this one 3.75 stars.