Directed by: Zach Clark.
Written by: Zach Clark and Melodie Sisk.
Starring: Addison Timlin (Colleen Lunsford), Ally Sheedy (Joani Lunsford), Keith Poulson (Jacob Lunsford), Peter Hedges (Bill Lunsford), Barbara Crampton (The Reverend Mother), Kristin Slaysman (Tricia), Molly Plunk (Emily).
In its own quiet way, Little Sister is a profound and perceptive film about family, politics, religion – and America in general. This is a film that at first seems like it could be another indie, Sundance wanna-be, about a dysfunctional family – and yet because everything in the film feels so genuine and low-key, it actually works. There are no big dramatic moments in the film – none are needed – and while the family has a lot of problems, none of them are really solved. They just keep going anyway – as screwed up as they are. In that way, they’re just like everyone else –who have to figure out a way to live with themselves.
The film is about Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin) – a novice nun living in Brooklyn. The film never looks down on her for her faith or mocks her for it – even when a few drunken hipsters do just that, it’s them who look like assholes, not Colleen, who treats them with kindness. She’s been estranged from her family for three years – but decides to head back home to North Carolina, after signing into her e-mail account, and seeing one from her mother Joani (Ally Sheedy) telling her that her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson) is home – but now won’t leave the guestroom. He is an Iraq veteran, who was horribly burned – his face now nothing but a mess of scars. Collen and Jacob were once close – and she wants to help. She borrows the Reverend Mother’s car, and heads home.
This sounds like a typical Sundance indie, right? Young Brooklyn-ite heads home to her backwater town and is embarrassed by her old life. But it doesn’t play like that at all. The film takes place in October, 2008 – and Obama is about to become President. We see Obama/Biden signs everywhere, we hear the debates in the background – and people assume that Jacob is happy to have Obama coming into the White House (not that it will help him any).
The movie really is a series of small moments. How Colleen tries in vain to reach Jacob, so she reaches desperate levels – ditches her nun’s outfit, dyes her hair pink and becomes the Goth teenager she once was to try and break down the walls between them (a wonderful, comic sequences sees her dancing to a Gwar song with a blood drenched baby doll). The two slowly come together, and bond – she brings him back into the world, one slow step at a time. The incident in their past that led Colleen to flee is only kind of spelled out – and involves Joani, who along with her husband has retreated into a haze of pot smoke to deal with their problems. Eventually, Colleen and Joani will talk – both kind of admitting that the other is a disappointment to each other, but perhaps learning to deal with it. Jacob and his fiancé, Tricia (Kristen Slaysman) have to try and find a way to bridge the gap between them as well – as both have strong, conflicting and understandable feelings about what has happened to Jacob. The movie moves closer and closer to Halloween, and the minimalist style becomes stranger and more surreal.
The film is extremely quiet and understated. Like Clark’s last film, the Christmas drama White Reindeer, about a tragedy around the holidays that sends a woman through a downward spiral, Clark doesn’t go for big moments. In its quiet way, Little Sister paints an empathetic portrait of America through one family, simply trying its best, and failing as often as it succeeds. It’s a film that sneaks up on you – and then you find yourself thinking of days later.