Little Sister is my kind of indie drama (Indama? Drindie?). Not everyone will find serviceable sentiments in Zach Clark’s punky-spunky homecoming, but those who indulge in alternative quirkiness have plenty of “high” notes and rock-outs to love. Unpredictable choices test a hopeful nun during her week-long stay with family, as strong performances resemble anything but Hollywood’s idealistic picket-fence household. Clark’s wackadoo spirit kisses Little Sister with goth-kid angst and real, tender emotion, showcasing a beating arthouse heart that comforts like a hug from Marilyn Manson.
Addison Timlin stars as Colleen Lunsford, a Brooklyn nun-in-training whose impending vow ceremony has her questioning a life of religious servitude. To make matters worse, she receives an email from her distant mother (Joani, played by Ally Sheedy) asking for a visit home. It’s obvious that Colleen hasn’t seen her family in some time, since tensions immediately spike between a confused child and her overbearing mother. Nonetheless, Colleen is home to comfort her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson), whose face has been badly burned while serving overseas in battle. Together, the disjointed Lunsford family must find a way to become whole once again, forgiving the past so they can embrace the future.
There’s a certain kind of raw honesty to Little Sister that’s unlocked by Timlin’s meek, restrained vibe. We meet her as a conflicted woman of God, before diving into past circumstances that drove Colleen away from her middle-of-nowhere North Carolina town. Timlin’s interactions with Jacob are sweet in their own metal-monster kind of way, thinking specifically of Timlin’s impromptu performance of GWAR’s “Have You Seen Me?” while wearing a neon-nun costume. Jacob may look like Troma’s Toxic Avenger (a low-budget prosthetic mask over Poulson’s head), but Colleen’s desire to rescue her now shut-in brother from hiding leads to exposure by way of personal fortitude, and more importantly, Clark’s richest assessment of dwelling pasts.
Elsewhere, we’re drawn into Colleen’s tumultuous connection to her heavily-medicated mother. The two bicker without pause, as Colleen is still treated like the irresponsible teen who left home. For years, Colleen had little contact with her family beyond email, but managed to establish an independent life based on innocence and good will. Now she returns home, and she’s met by the same goth-kid room she left behind. All the makeup, black lipstick, band posters – years have passed, yet both her parents (father played by Peter Hedges) still see the same concert-loving wild child. It’s here where Clark reminds us that radical changes aren’t always the answer, as we can still hold on to the things we love without feeling frozen in spirit.
Clark displays promise when building character dynamics, but sometimes falls victim to scripted bias. A fake 9/11 theater show is accompanied by election coverage that’s meant to divide, but political agendas never seem all that important to Colleen’s journey. Jacob being overseas surely has everything to do with governmental decision-making – a character even remarks about what a waste the war is to Jacob – but equal emotion would have been felt without obvious agenda points. A Halloween party with secret pot cupcakes is where Clark makes his mark (family dance montage!), much like all the bonding over outcast cultures that Jacob and Colleen do. You’ll remember Clark’s work for aspects like Jacob’s constant drumming that sets the rhythm for Colleen’s uneasiness much more than you’ll appreciate the filmmaker’s political commentary, but it’s never preachy enough to distract.
Little Sister is a quantifiable level of approved quirk, never relying too heavily on abstract shocks. Yes, a mother drugging her family with marijuana desserts dives into a certain deep end, but Colleen’s righteous inner-rumble plays into a heartwarming story about moving on, moving back and still finding yourself amidst the chaos. Her pink hair-do and thick eyeliner only make a short appearance, as the rest of the film focuses on healing through different channels. Zach Clark explores the road less traveled for sure, but still strings together a touching story of rekindling and acceptance worth all the bloodied baby dance sequences and medicinal stimulation, nostalgic fears and all.
Bonus Points: Barbara Crampton as a hilarious, agitated nun!
Little Sister is a spunky family drama that does "indie" right.