How often do you get to see a film in which the central character is a former goth girl now in the process of becoming a nun?
Zack Clark’s fourth feature film incorporates a story arc familiar to anyone who has seen many American indie movies—a dysfunctional family that gets it wrong, then gets at least some of it right—with enough that’s new and fresh to enliven the formula. How often, after all, do you get to see a film in which the central character is a former goth girl now in the process of becoming a nun?
That would be Colleen (Addison Timlin), who is in the early stages of the becoming-a-nun process in a convent in Brooklyn. She seems sincere in her faith and does her best to make the lives of those around her better but is also painfully unsure of herself and still has some growing up left to do. The Reverend Mother (scream queen Barbara Crampton, in one this film’s several inspired bits of casting) is not sure Colleen is ready to commit to the religious life and tells her so directly. If this were The Sound of Music, Colleen would then be packed off to serve as a governess to a family for a few years, and in fact something does happen to take her away from the convent for a bit. She receives an urgent email from her mother (Ally Sheedy, playing an adult version of the head case character she played in The Breakfast Club), stating that her older brother has returned home and refuses to come out of his room. Mom also apologizes for “the accident,” as the camera pulls back to reveal scars on her wrists, and she then lights up a pipe (presumably not filled with tobacco). So you know that this is a family with problems, and intuit that perhaps Colleen is seeking the peace of the convent in order to get away from them. You also know the double meaning of the title—Colleen is Jacob’s little sister, and she’s also in the process of becoming a religious sister.
Colleen borrows the Reverend Mother’s car to drive home to North Carolina (an odd choice, particularly considering that many other people share the same car—hasn’t anyone heard of public transportation?). She promises to have it back in five days, after the Reverend Mother tartly reminds her that the world was created in seven. Arriving home, she finds her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) dealing none to well with the massive burn scars and lung damage he incurred while serving in the Marines. He doesn’t want to go anywhere, in part because people stare and say inappropriate things (although the specific inappropriate thing said to him in the drugstore seems highly unlikely), and doesn’t want to have anything to do with his beautiful fiancé, despite the fact that she obviously still loves and wants to marry him.
One thing Colleen and Jacob share is a love for all things goth, and she taps into her old self while performing GWAR’s “Have You Seen Me” for her brother, delivering a committed performance complete with fake blood and baby dolls. They start to connect, and she encourages him to venture out in the world and to give people a chance, because most of them are decent folk who wish him the best. Still, getting Jacob back to living in the world is not an easy process, particularly after Mom reliably does something stupid, and Jacob’s old friends from the neighborhood do something even stupider. But you know how the formula works, and Little Sister’s arc does bend in a basically positive direction.
Daryl Pittman’s cinematography is beautiful, and the soundtrack serves the story well. The story is set in 2008, as the film keeps reminding us via clips of Barak Obama, but the relationship between that political campaign and the story of the family within the film is never made clear. I also have one technical quibble with this film. Using an old-fashioned Gothic font, in gold, for the title cards delineating the days Colleen spends with her family is an inspired choice that reminds us of her dedication to religion while also injecting a note of humor into the drama (this film is definitely a comedy, despite the characters’ serious problems). Using the same font for the credits, however, just makes them difficult to read. | Sarah Boslaugh
Little Sister is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include deleted scenes (5 min.), selected scenes from Zack Clark’s 2004 film Rock & Roll Eulogy (12 min.), home videos (3 min.) featuring the Kyle Prado (who plays young Jacob) and Taylor Jones (who plays young Colleen), a commercial for Pro-Star Entertainment (37 sec.), a Q & A from the NY Film Critics Series with Ally Sheedy and Zach Clark, hosted by Peter Travers (30 min.), and the film’s trailer.