The Other Sister (1999) - Plot Summary Poster


Showing all 3 items
Jump to:


  • A mentally challenged young woman seeks independence by obtaining her own apartment and attending college while her family plans her sister's wedding.

  • When Carla Tate, now a young woman, is 'graduated' out of the training school where she has resided for many years because she is mentally challenged, her hope is that she will be accepted for all that she can now do for herself. But Carla's family is wealthy which permits her mother, already blinded to her daughter's rather high-functioning abilities, to try and provide for Carla beyond her needs or desires, bringing forth the inevitable confrontations... for what Carla may lack in mental ability she certainly makes up for in her insistence on being independent, even to living in her own apartment. But if this isn't enough, into the mix comes a young man, equally challenged mentally, who moves Carla beyond anyone's control...


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • A chauffeured car drops Dr. Radley Tate (Tom Skerritt) off at the Roselake school to pick up his daughter, Carla (Juliette Lewis). Carla is mentally handicapped and Radley is picking her up to bring her home after she's spent some time at the school. Radley holds out his arms to hug his daughter, but Carla just hands him a plastic bag partially filled with water and holding her goldfish, and she goes to hug the headmaster of the school, Dr. Johnson (Harvey Miller), instead. Dr. Johnson assures her she's ready to return home.

    As Radley and Carla are flying home to San Francisco, flashbacks show Carla as a little girl, having an outburst during dinner. Radley and his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton), argue in the living room. Elizabeth insists that Carla needs professional help, and they enroll her in Roselake.

    Carla is welcomed home by her family, and her sister, Caroline (Poppy Montgomery), announces she's engaged to be married to her fiance, Jeff Reed (Joe Flanigan). Carla hands her mother a bunch of necklaces she'd made at the school; one for everyone in the family.

    After dinner, the family gathers in the living room (it's seen now that the Tate family is wealthy, and lives well). When Jeff mentions the subject of his doctoral dissertation, Elizabeth drops a not-so-subtle criticism of Caroline's job teaching second grade at an elementary school, despite the fact that Caroline enjoys doing it. Carla announces that she wants to finish public high school so she can become a veterinarian's assistant, but Elizabeth declines to talk about it right away. Elizabeth is seen to be a rigidly controlling mother who's not about to surrender that control even though all three of her daughters are grown.

    As Elizabeth leads Carla upstairs, she has a flashback to an unpleasant memory from her childhood, which shows that she can't handle being laughed at. As Elizabeth leads Carla into her room, we see that Elizabeth has redecorated it, and doesn't understand why Carla doesn't like it. Carla closes her eyes to remember her room the way it was.

    Trying to make it up to her daughter, Elizabeth tries to take Carla shopping, but her controlling nature continues; and she's not very opening to indulging Carla's tastes in clothing or shoes. At a meeting at an animal shelter that Elizabeth supports, Carla lets out several dogs from their enclosure. Elizabeth makes a stink about this with Radley at home, and her voice is raised to where Carla can overhear. Distraught, Carla packs a few meager belongings and runs away. The Tate housekeeper, Winnie (Juliet Mills), finds a note that Carla left behind.

    Police pick Carla up on the road where she'd been trying to hitchhike, and return her to Roselake, as that's the address Carla gave them. Radley and Elizabeth go to pick her up, and Dr. Johnson discusses the police report, in which Carla had complained that Elizabeth is smothering her; something Elizabeth can't understand. She protests she took Carla to the pet shelter with the hopes that Carla could get a job there, and that she enrolled Carla in a few hobby classes. So single-minded is Elizabeth in controlling Carla's life that she can't listen to Dr. Johnson trying to explain that Carla didn't like the classes. Elizabeth insists that as the mother of a developmentally disabled young woman, she knows more about what works for Carla, than Carla does. Dr. Johnson counters by explaining that despite her disability, Carla is stubbornly independent, and this trait has to be cultivated. She wants to attend a public vocational school, and Dr. Johnson is positive she can thrive there, despite Elizabeth's protests. Dr. Johnson says that giving Carla more control over her own life is the only way she'll gain dignity.

    Radley enrolls Carla in Bay Area Polytech, and although she finds it wondrous. she is able to keep her head on straight. She nudges a young man who also appears to be developmentally disabled, who'd nodded off while waiting in line. She attends her classes, including elementary computer use, and does her homework at home. The next day, the young man she'd nudged awake, Daniel McMahon (Giovanni Ribisi), finds her and introduces himself, and thanks her for helping him with registration. Carla's gotten out of school early and was on her way to call her father so he could pick her up, but Danny, much to her great surprise, invites her to have a soda and a burger with him.

    Danny takes her to a diner where a lot of bus drivers go. Danny regularly rides buses to see marching bands at college football games. He even has a job working with a marching band; although it's not a paying job, he gets to keep marshmallows that fans throw at the tubas (trying to get them into the tuba bells, as a prank). He also helps bake cookies at a bakery, and this job does pay. Carla writes some notes down, which she says she does because she wants to work one day as well. Noting the time, Carla says she has to get back to the school so she can meet her father. Danny brings her back and stuns her by talking about how he has his own apartment, living alone. Carla is amazed hearing about all the things Danny can do living on his own, and her eyes are seen lighting up. Danny says he thinks Carla would be able to do this as well, if she wanted.

    Carla's family celebrates her 22nd birthday, and discuss some of her latest accomplishments. Carla drops the hint there, that she might be ready to live in her own apartment. Elizabeth refuses to discuss it, instead trying to get Carla to open her presents. Getting upset, Carla gets up and goes back to her room. Radley, Caroline and the oldest sister, Heather (Sarah Paulson) all grill Elizabeth over her overbearing attitude; Heather insisting that there are increasing resources to help disabled people live independently. Coldly delivering a biting remark that Heather doesn't live at home anymore, so she doesn't get a 'vote,' Elizabeth has an outburst over how Carla is her daughter and she is going to protect her, no matter what. Radley has it out with his wife, getting angrier when she dismisses him over his having been a drunk when Carla was first enrolled at Roselake. Fed up with Elizabeth's overbearing attitude, he decides to skip dinner when Winnie announces it's ready.

    Distraught, Elizabeth sits and cries while Radley goes to work on his boat. Elizabeth finally joins him and tries to talk reasonably. Her fear of losing Carla so soon after she's just come home is plain on her face. Radley assures her they have to trust Carla.

    Elizabeth, sitting at the dinner tables, calls out to see if anyone else is going to sit and eat. Caroline, Heather and Radley all come in, wearing the necklaces Carla made for them. Winnie is also wearing hers. Elizabeth gives in and says she'll agree to Carla getting her own apartment; news that cheers Carla up in a hurry.

    Picking Carla up from school, Radley sees her saying goodbye to Daniel and notes that Carla likes him, although she calls him a friend instead of a boyfriend.

    Elizabeth takes Carla out on a walk in a park and carefully tries to broach the subject of Carla being taken advantage of by young men who are guests in the apartment she'll soon be getting. Much to her relief, Carla shows she knows how to handle it, and that she understands sex better than Elizabeth thought.

    Carla takes a bus and, with the aid of a map, finds her way to Danny's apartment. He plays one of his marching band CD's for her and starts to march around the room, waving a pencil like a baton. Danny is friends with the building manager, Ernie (Hector Elizondo), who's also a musician and a painter. Danny's father sends Danny's allowance checks to Ernie.

    The two of them watch the movie The Graduate (1967), and as it ends, Danny asks Carla if she'd like to be his girlfriend. She thinks a moment and says okay. Danny puts an arm around her carefully and just sits like that.

    In the meantime, a real estate agent is with Elizabeth, playing tapes of himself showing various apartments. He hesitantly says that the building managers, who are aware of Carla's condition, want to know if she'll be responsible. Elizabeth defends her daughter and says she's very adamant about wanting to be on her own. The realtor continues playing the tape, and shows an apartment that Elizabeth thinks will be perfect.

    Carla hurries to the bakery where Danny works to tell him the news. She moves in to the apartment in two weeks. Later, he brings her to the university where he volunteers, and introduces her to the marching band members. The bandmaster gives Danny a treat, letting him conduct one of the band's numbers.

    Later, Carla is talking to Heather over the phone, telling her that she's going to a dance with Danny. Heather tells her how she can get a makeover at a mall.

    Carla goes to one of the malls and a salesgirl says that one of the salons is giving a free makeover demonstration, but Carla finds out the hard way that it's not as free as she thinks-- they only do one half of her face; finishing the job will cost $50, which is $15 more than another mall across the way.

    Elizabeth cleans Carla's face up and tries to reassure her that she looks fine the way she is. Carla asks if Elizabeth will show her how to dance, and the uptight Elizabeth lets her guard down for perhaps the first time, having some real fun at it.

    It's Halloween, the night of the Polytechnic dance, and Carla is made up like a swan. Elizabeth is horrified at first when Danny arrives, dressed in a dog costume, and Carla introduces him as her boyfriend. But Radley reassures her and she tries to put on a brave face.

    At the dance, a faculty member says first quarter grades are posted downstairs. Carla and Danny go to see, and Carla is delighted to find she's passed. Danny, however, has failed, just under the passing margin, and gets very upset, frightened that Carla would think he was dumb. Carla tells him she could never think that. Carla leans in, and the two of them kiss.

    Radley and Elizabeth talk while sailing around San Francisco Bay. Even while she loves them, she still has criticisms about Caroline (who enjoys teaching at a job that pays less than she's capable of earning), and Heather (who is lesbian, much to Elizabeth's consternation), and how Carla wants to go out and conquer the world. Radley has to reassure her several times that the kids are all doing fine, and the whole family is doing fine.

    It's move-in day; Carla's first day in her new apartment. Elizabeth's overprotective nature returns and she places a number of fire extinguishers and a list of to-do things when Carla goes out near the front door. Both Radley and Carla have to tell her several times, not to worry. Carla takes some time to enjoy being on her own for the first time, laughing when a soft drink makes her burp.

    On a date with Danny near her apartment, Carla says she wants to be friends for a long time. But Danny comes bearing bad news: Danny's having failed classes has resulting in his father cutting off the allowance Danny was sent for the rent on his apartment, and he might be forced to move to Florida to live with his mother.

    Later, back at Danny's apartment, he and Carla are kissing romantically. Carla starts getting aroused; a feeling she's not familiar with. They start talking about sex and love, and Danny says he loves Carla more than either of his jobs. Carla is happy with this and says she loves Danny too.

    Not wanting see Danny have to leave, Carla talks to her parents, hoping for Danny to be able to move in with her. This time, however, both Radley and Elizabeth disapprove, albeit for different reasons. Elizabeth thinks Danny sees Carla as just a 'rich girl,' because the family has money. Radley thinks that Carla's feelings for Danny are a mere crush and a 'harmless flirtation,' as Radley calls it.

    But at Carla's apartment, it's seen that the relationship is no mere crush; Carla and Danny are reading a book on sex. Danny was hoping for his first real intimacy with Carla right away, but Carla wants to wait until Thanksgiving because the nature of the holiday will make it special in her eyes.

    Days pass, Carla and Danny's relationship continues, and Thanksgiving comes. Carla goes home and helps Winnie with some of the cooking. After the meal, Winnie bundles up some of the leftovers for Carla, which she brings back to her apartment and shares with Danny. Afterward, they're feeling passionate, even though scared, as this would be the first time for either of them. Danny puts on some music: the marching band number 76 Trombones.

    Winnie sees the look on Carla's face and knows she's in love. Elizabeth sees that Carla looks different too, although she doesn't see the why of it, the way Winnie does. Daniel gets a call from his father, and it doesn't go too well. Danny's father feels he's sent enough money to Danny and now Danny's mother should start. Danny gets drunk and Ernie tries to console him; trying to be a friend that will calm Danny's feelings.

    The Tate family is getting ready to go to a Christmas event at their country club. Carla is happy because Radley has consented to Carla bringing Danny as her date, but Heather isn't too pleased that she can't bring hers. Elizabeth still balks at meeting Heather's girlfriend and lover; something Heather sees as hypocritical because Eliabeth claims to support gay rights and causes.

    At the party, Danny admits to Carla that he's afraid of her family. Carla says that she gets scared sometimes as well, but that it's important to be brave, because then they can say what makes them comfortable. Unfortunately, Carla doesn't know that Danny had already talked about bravery with Ernie-- Ernie had told Danny it's one of the reasons people drink.

    Danny goes to the bar and drinks, while Jeff addresses the guests about how he met Caroline and how they'll be getting married next month. As Caroline dances with Jeff, a slightly drunk Danny marches up to the podium, grabs the mic and starts telling the guests about his love for Carla, and he wants to be able to bring her down to Florida with him if he has to move there. But, Danny then starts telling about his intimacy with Carla during Thanksgiving, even starting to sing 76 Trombones, the music he played that night. The other guests all think it's a joke and start to laugh uproariously. Carla, thinking they're laughing at her, loses control and screams at them all to stop. Carla can't stop crying and the Tates have to hurry out of the party.

    When Carla is alone in the limousine, Danny runs over and tries to apologize. Still heartbroken and out of control, Carla lets all her anger out and does the last thing Danny likes-- she calls him stupid, and that she doesn't want to see him again. Danny responds the only way he knows how: saying that he's also done with Carla and that she's stupid too. The Tates regroup to drive home and Radley asks a country club official to make sure a cab brings Danny safely home. Even as they ride away, Radley tries to assure Carla that Danny simply had too much to drink and didn't mean to embarrass her.

    Carla notices Danny's bike missing from its spot on the rack back at Polytechnic; Danny is spending time at the football stadium where the band he's friends with, plays. Danny gets on a train bound for Florida, as Carla sits by her window on a rainy night, drawing a heart in the condensation on the window.

    Tensions rise at a wedding rehearsal for Caroline and Jeff. Heather is still upset because Elizabeth won't let her bring her girlfriend, and Carla understands Danny has left town and she'll have no date. Caroline sees this as an intrusion on what's supposed to be the happiest day of her own life. Elizabeth desperately tries to hold the family together.

    On the train, Danny rambles to his seatmate about the movie The Graduate, talking about one of the subplots. He stops suddenly, a look of thought on his face, realizing it applies to his relationship with Carla. The train has stopped at Deming, and Daniel runs off and rings for the station attendant, asking to exchange his ticket so he can return to San Francisco... unaware he'd accidentally left his ticket on the train. Danny must hitchhike to get back to San Francisco, while Carla parties with Caroline and Heather in Caroline's room at the Tate house; a bachelorette party. Caroline and Heather try to cheer Carla up when she wishes to be able to see Danny again.

    Caroline's wedding to Jeff begins; a lavish black-tie affair in a large church. A small truck carrying a horse drops Danny off, but an usher stops him from entering the church, thinking he's a homeless person. Danny trots away and around the corner as, inside the church, rings are being exchanged. As the priest begins reciting some church material about marriage, the guests start to become aware that someone is throwing small marshmallows around. Jeff catches one in his mouth and the audience laughs.

    One of the marshmallows lands on Carla's bouquet, and she knows what it means. Danny has found another way to sneak into the church and is hiding in the organ balcony, throwing the marshmallows to get her attention. He swings down from one of the tapestries and Carla hugs him.

    Taking a moment to look at all the gawking guests, Danny raises his voice loud enough for them to all hear, asking Carla to marry him. Carla says yes. There's a brief moment of applause before Elizabeth takes charge, apologizing to the guests and saying Carla and Daniel will join the guests on the pews so that Caroline's wedding can be concluded.

    The wedding ceremony finishes and the reception begins. Carla approaches Elizabeth to ask if it's time to plan a second wedding. But yet again, Elizabeth tries to argue with Carla-- not a good idea with Carla being as stubborn as she is once she puts her mind to something. Raising her voice that her eyes are not closed, Carla storms out of the reception hall; Elizabeth running after her.

    Finally fed up, Carla puts a foot down with her mother, seizing control of her own life once and for all, telling Elizabeth that she'll plan her wedding to Danny by herself, and Elizabeth doesn't have to come if she's so set on seeing Carla find a better person. Carla says she and Danny are who they are, and Carla can't play tennis or paint art, but she can love... and she and Danny are in love. Refusing to stay for the rest of the reception, Carla runs home.

    Carla knows that in order to do the wedding the way she wants, she and Danny have to pay for it themselves. They make an agreement with the priest of a smaller church. The wedding will be less formal than Carolines, and aside from inviting Caroline and Heather, Carla invites some of her friends from Polytechnic. Much to Heather's delight, Carla tells her to bring her girlfriend as her date.

    Radley wasn't at breakfast, because Carla asked him to give a pep talk to Danny, including responsibility and bravery (without drinking). As Elizabeth pointedly leafs through a magazine, Radley tells her he's going to the wedding. Carla wouldn't accept any of her parents' money to cover the wedding's costs, but Radley will be there to walk Carla down the aisle.

    The number of guests at Carla's wedding is small; aside from Caroline, Heather, Winnie, Jeff, Heather's girlfriend Michelle (Tracy Reiner), and a few of Carla's friends from school, there's Ernie, Danny's mother and her boyfriend, his boss from the bakery and a few of his friends. Ernie plays guitar and sings, 'At Last' by Etta James.

    Radley walks Carla down the aisle. Instead of an organist, a radio plays the wedding march theme on tape. Carla and Danny have decided to speak their own vows. Carla accidentally slips up, saying she takes Danny for her wife. But Danny and the priest reassure her and she continues with the vows. Carla and Danny are so enthusiastic they can't wait for the kiss; the priest having to gently remind them to exchange the rings and let him make the pronunciation of them as husband and wife.

    The wedding has just concluded when Carla turns, looking down the aisle. Elizabeth has shown up. Carla is very happy to introduce Danny to Elizabeth as her husband. Elizabeth seems to have finally started to learn how to put a leash on her parenting nature and accepts a hug from Danny, welcome him to the family. Heather is also able to introduce Michelle to Elizabeth face to face.

    As Danny and Carla get into the wedding car, Danny calls for everyone to wait a few seconds. The sound of drums comes into hearing. The college marching band comes marching down the street in full dress regalia, playing 76 Trombones; Danny's present to Carla. Carla smiles in delight and kisses Danny. Radley and Elizabeth wave goodbye as their daughter, and her new husband, ride off.

See also

Taglines | Synopsis | Plot Keywords | Parents Guide

Contribute to This Page

Recently Viewed