‘Little Sister’: Film Review

Courtesy of Forager Films
Winningly wry and understated.

Addison Timlin and Ally Sheedy star in a dark-tinged comedy about family and country, set during the final months of George W. Bush’s presidency.

In life as in fairy tales, some monsters are good. They’re the misunderstood misfits, the kindhearted rejects, the discomfiting reminders of truths better ignored. They’re the spark of messy life at the center of Zach Clark’s wonderfully low-key Little Sister, a wryly serious comic tale in which a former Goth girl’s path to the convent is sidelined by family crisis and her own lingering doubts. Addison Timlin and Ally Sheedy lead a pitch-perfect ensemble as, respectively, the novitiate and her depressed mother. Beyond the family angst, though, the movie pulses with a quietly incisive commentary on the everyday political realities (and dreams) of 21st-century Americans.

Among Brooklyn’s Sisters of Mercy, a modern order that eschews the wearing of habits, Colleen Lunsford (Timlin) has found a joyful purpose in community service. As her first vows near, though, the Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton) wonders if she’s truly ready, given her late nights among hipster performance artists — who mask their unease in her presence with smug ridicule, clearly not Colleen’s first brush with derision.

Summoned home to North Carolina by her mother, Joani (Sheedy), she makes the trip to take stock of the domestic dysfunction she left behind, but mainly to see her brother, a grievously injured Iraq veteran who hasn’t left their parents’ guesthouse since being released from the hospital. It’s October 2008, and the lawns and refrigerators of arty Asheville flaunt Obama-Biden signage.

His face disfigured by burns (convincing prosthetic and makeup work), Jacob (Keith Poulson) hides from the world in hoodie and shades even when he’s indoors. He ignores CNN’s requests for an interview and rebuffs the seductive moves of his fiancée, Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), a character who confounds the stereotype that assumes beauteous blondes must be inconstant and uncaring.

Colleen’s dad, Bill (Peter Hedges), is as mellow as her mother is aggressively nervous and demanding. Their middle ground is cannabis, part of the self-medication that supplements the pharmaceuticals prescribed to Joani, who refers to her suicide attempt as “my accident.” Denial is rampant, as writer-director-editor Clark shows, with a light hand, in the election-year backdrop of disconnected, passive expectations that a new leader will solve everyone’s problems.

Colleen stands strong, however petitely, outside the mainstream. Her choices, from her religion to her vegetarianism, are an affront to her parents, whether they’ll admit it or not. Joani is more willing to make her feelings known, although not always out loud; her irked expression is priceless as, wine glass in hand, she watches her daughter pray over her meatless dinner plate.

Snippets of childhood videos of Colleen and Jacob are the film’s most overt plays at sentiment, but mainly Clark (White Reindeer) has crafted a sharply sad yet hopeful story, looking at faith in its varied forms. Depending on the person, some callings are perhaps more deeply considered than others; they include not just spiritual devotion but political commitment, military duty and animal rights activism. The latter is the credo of Emily (Molly Plunk), a fellow high school outcast who Colleen reconnects with. Gangly and sweetly earnest, Emily hasn’t forgotten her teenage crush on Jacob.

But it’s one-time Goth girl Colleen who makes the first, crucial overtures to draw him back into the flux and flow. Getting out the pink hair dye and black lipstick that are still in her old room — after righting the inverted crucifix adorning the wall — she lets something loose in both of them, something silly and fierce. The monsters, good, bad and indifferent, are out, culminating in a misbegotten family Halloween celebration. Flirting with sitcommy high jinks, Clark instead gives us a bittersweet cocktail of soul-weary defeat and unassuming vigor.

The quartet of actors playing the Lunsfords convey everything we need to know, making the childhood memories that Clark weaves into the mix unnecessary at best. Timlin embodies a deeply rooted equanimity that’s anything but self-satisfied, while Sheedy uses her brilliant intensity to create a woman who’s equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating. Between them, agreeing to disagree has rarely had more heart.

In addition to well-chosen punk and metal tracks, the percussive score by Fritz Myers sounds just the right drumbeat of emotions that, despite everyone’s best efforts to keep them down, rise from the politely contained muck like unruly beasts.

Distributor: Forager Films
Production companies: Forager Films in association with Nice Dissolve and Wraith Films
Cast: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson, Peter Hedges, Kristin Slaysman, Molly Plunk, Barbara Crampton
Director-screenwriter: Zach Clark
Story by: Zach Clark, Melodie Sisk
Producers: Zach Clark, Daryl Pittman, Melodie Sisk
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker, Joe Swanberg, Jennifer Brown, Ash Christian, Chris Kenny, Chip and Jennifer Lunsford, Joseph Pattisall, Daryl Pittman, Pierce Varous, Farah White
Director of photography: Daryl Pittman
Production designer: Nick Iway
Costume designer: David Withrow
Editor: Zach Clark
Composer: Fritz Myers
Hair and makeup: Margaret Sackman
Special makeup effects: Gerner & Spears Effects
Prosthetic design: Brian Spears
Makeup application: Peter Gerner
Casting: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy

Not rated, 91 minutes