The curious career of Jonathan Demme has gone from a tawdry women-in-prison thriller for producer Roger Corman to quirky, warm-hearted comedies; from the definitive New Wave concert film to an Oscar-winning prestige drama (to say nothing of that Oscar-winning serial killer picture); from left-wing documentaries to big-budget Hollywood remakes. Damned if I can figure out who the director is, but the one thing you can count on, is that anything the man touches has an unusually high likelihood of being, at the very least, quite interesting.

"Interesting" certainly describes Rachel Getting Married, but it also sells it short; Demme's first narrative feature since 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate also happens to be a pretty damn fine bit of moviemaking, given its modest ambitions. This is a great example of a "little" movie, both in its story and its aesthetic; it's also a reminder that littleness doesn't keep a film from touching greatness.

The ensemble-based story doesn't really center on Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), but on her sister Kym (Anne Hathaway); released for a few days from rehab to go to her sister's wedding, Kym's often transparent need to be the center of attention threatens to explode the already delicate family harmony between her jealous and contemptuous sister, and her aggravatingly doting father, Paul (Bill Irwin), who seems almost stubbornly unaware of the increasing friction between his two girls; the twin spectres of a dead baby brother and an emotionally absent mother and ex-wife (Debra Winger) only make a fraught situation that much more unendurable. Superficially, it's awfully suggestive of Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding from last year, although if you take away the wedding backdrop and the detail that the drama centers around two sisters, there's really nothing to connect the two films more than any random pair of movies about family dynamics. While Margot (which I slightly prefer) combined a chilly, precise visual language with a frankly clinical approach to character study, Rachel is a bit messier and infinitely warmer - if Baumbach kind of hates all of his characters, Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet unabashedly love theirs, even though virtually every major character gets at least one scene where you just really want to reach into the screen and throttle them.

Basically, Rachel Getting Married is one of those exorbitantly generous movies that comes along but once or twice a year, where the filmmakers splash a cavalcade of deeply flawed characters onscreen, and then through a gentle series of pokes here and there guide us to the understanding that whatever their flaws, nobody really wants to be the villain in their heart of hearts. Accordingly, the film takes the time to show us the characters in moments of relative peace and comity, and to surround them with a richly detailed community of figures who only need one or two on-camera appearances to come across as just as much a person as anyone else in the movie. Demme and Lumet aren't trying to make a scorching psychodrama - though the film's depiction of latent familial resentment and anger is often quite brutal, saving Rachel from anything like sticky sentimentality - but instead a celebration of the happy moments in life; it's a key move for the film to make, rescuing the film from the platitudinous "sisters want to love each other because they're sisters" by showing exactly what it looks like when the sisters are happy together. Since we know what they're reaching for, it's that much more heartbreaking that they so rarely achieve it.

Because it spends so much time on the world outside the main conflict, the film leaves itself open to easy and occasionally deserved criticism of being a touch unfocused; and because Demme and Lumet's idealised community is so charmingly idiosyncratic, it also opens itself to charges of unwarranted quirkiness. I don't take much delight in admitting that both of these complaints, though sometimes beside the point, have a great deal of validity. Sometimes both problems crop up at the same time: one of the film's worst low points is a protracted scene in which Paul and Rachel's fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) have a good-natured contest over who can load the dishwasher faster and more efficiently, as several good-natured bystanders cheer them on. It's altogether tedious, and ultimately nothing but a tortured way to bring up Paul's unresolved feelings about his dead son. My other candidate for "worst scene" comes nearer the end, during the wedding ceremony itself, when Sidney's vows shade into a recitation of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" nearly in its entirety - charmingly off-kilter behavior that bears virtually no resemblance to something an actual human being would ever do.

Essentially, everything that is wrong and everything that is right about Rachel Getting Married has something to do with Demme freeing himself to chase his interests. His well-known love of music informs most of the movie - the "Unknown Legend" bit is a unusually obnoxious example - in the form of the musicians who wander around in the days before the wedding, rehearsing or just providing entertainment for the guests (one of these is Brooklyn Demme, the director's son). The way he lets many of the scenes unspool in what appears for all the world to be improvised dialogue is another (sometimes this works exceedingly well, sometimes it just tries the patience, and once - in the lengthy rehearsal dinner scene, which mostly consists of a series of toasts - it is both things at the same time). Of course, Demme has a long history as an actor's director, and the room he gives his cast to find their characters is without doubt a good thing, even if it occasionally means that the film droops into "actorly" moments that don't really advance the story or the emotional tenor of the film.

About those actors: of course, Hathaway is grabbing the lion's share of the film's accolades, and I am happy to say, having never had much use for her in anything, that she's fantastic here. Better than I would have imagined possible; though still not quite as great as the most enthusiastic reviewers would have you believe. Anyway, I was more impressed with her co-stars, who were all required to express what their characters were hiding, rather than Hathaway, whose character externalises everything she feels. DeWitt, in a role almost big enough to count as a co-lead, has a tightly-wound nervousness that is a perfect counterbalance to Kym's messiness, while Irwin does a fantastic job at hiding his character's feelings behind a veil of silliness and fake cheer. But the stand-out is absolutely Winger, who gives a performance of indescribable subtlety; enough so that it's only in her final moments on-screen (in a role that cannot possibly add up to ten minutes, all told) that we completely understand what sort of monstrous woman this was. In a film that's mostly content to let everything hang out, Winger is the great exception, a mysterious presence rather than a human being, the only point where the film acknowledges that there are true dark spots that love and fellowship really can't penetrate.

About the film's visual aesthetic I have said little; this is because there's not much to say. Shot in a violently stripped-down style that suggests the Dogme 95 movement: virtually no off-stage lighting, absolutely no music besides the on-screen band, and it's all done with handheld digital cameras. By now, this faux-documentary aesthetic has gone infinitely beyond mere cliché, but I'm amazed that it actually works for once in Rachel Getting Married, the first hand-held movie in literally years that hasn't pissed me off. I think it's because the minimalist style fits so well in the movie's domestic frame; it looks kind of like a home movie of the days immediately before a wedding. That's a trite thing to say, let me try again: the visual language in the film is so very basic as to lower the audience's defenses, much as the extremely simple narrative set-up does; thus the film is able to wriggle in without bombast, and its effectiveness is the result of its simplicity. It seems too modest to have any effect, and it's only hours later that we realise how deeply the movie was able to burrow into our minds.