If there’s one thing you can count on your kids to do, that’s rebel. And what better way is there to rebel against your ultra-liberal, atheist parents than to run away and become a nun (especially when those parents wished you to grow up as a lesbian Satanist)? Set against the backdrop of a pretty unconventional American family, Little Sister follows its protagonist’s return to her family home for the first time since she ran away, and the seven days she spends there to dig her family out of the metaphorical dirt. Directed, written and produced by Zach Clark, this film gives the homecoming cliché its own wacky spin, balancing glee and gloom as brilliantly as it works the dissonance of the premise into the story.
Colleen (Addison Timlin) is a young girl on her journey to becoming a nun, and who finds herself conflicted between two realities – that which she grew up in and left behind, and the path of faith that she has chosen for herself. As many a runaway child before her, she feels she has left things unresolved back home, when she receives an e-mail from her mother (Ally Sheedy) informing her of the return of her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), who has just survived a warzone bombing. Taking this as cue for a few days away from the convent, Colleen drives down to Ashville, where her parents seem overjoyed to see her. The movie opens with the words ‘Fail to see the tragic, turn it into magic!’ – the Marilyn Manson quote from the song ‘Dope Hat’ – a motto she seems to have adopted for herself, both in her entry into the faith, as well as a means to reconnecting with her family, who needs some magic more than anything else.
Using faith not as the subject of conversation, but as a line dividing the family, the director traces Colleen’s character and her redemptive path through the discord between her past and her parents with her present self. Much of the film is reliant on the character of Colleen, especially her face, which is our window into the history between these characters, and is carried superbly by Addison, who deserves high mention for her performance. This is complemented by a captivating Ally Sheedy (of Breakfast Club fame) in the role of the mother Joani, who is clearly the prime player in whatever pushed Colleen to leave home. The cleverness of the film is in its silence, in how it leaves most of the past unexplained, leaving it for us to gather from the exchanges between characters, through a screenplay that knows all the right words to use. For example, while it only verbally tells us that her brother Jacob got injured in the war, the movie carefully channels his past with Colleen, and the damage to his relationships through the nature of their interactions – gradually filling the reason why his return moved her to return. When you are able to communicate not just emotions, but entire histories without ever speaking them, then you know what you have on your hands is truly immersive cinema.
Colleen’s journey in this film is a difficult one: one the one hand, she has to reconcile her goth identity with her new life as a nun, and on the other, she has to somehow try to glue back the family that was broken by her calling to God, and a nasty bomb in Iraq. With her now reclusive brother’s distant drumming as backdrop, she navigates the contours of her anti-conventional parents and a brother she used to be close to, but is now only a shadow of the man he was. For the relief of cynics, the film is not preaching faith or schmaltz; it is instead telling us that we’re all screw-ups searching for our place in the world, and that the best we can do for each other is to accept people along with their mistakes or differences. In fact, that’s the best part of Little Sister: that it does not talk down to its audience, and holds no one’s leanings at a higher level. It visualizes a world where everyone has their own misgivings, and where there is another self hiding within each person.
Zach Clark’s film does not dwell on the wider questions that burden the choice of faith, but is instead content on touching notes closer to home and the relationships that hold us together in a world full of screw-ups. Not ignoring the real world of politics and events around the world, it roots itself in its time and place – a pre-Obama United States in 2008 – and uses it to paint the world around the characters and how it affects them. Concentrating on personal victories and the little happiness we can bring to the few people in our world, its elegant handling of personal identities makes it not only one of the best films of the year, but a reassuring masterpiece in its own right. God created the world in seven days. In Little Sister, Colleen takes the same time to breathe life into hers.