Writer-director Zach Clark is seemingly obsessed with goody-goody women who hide a darker side. In his breakout indie hit, White Reindeer, a suburban real estate agent copes with her fiancé’s death with compulsive shopping, stripper friends, and raunchy sex parties; in Modern Love Is Automatic, a woman leads a secret life as a dominatrix. But Clark’s newest, Little Sister, has far more in common with his first feature, Rock & Roll Eulogy, an ambitious little mess about a Catholic girl who falls in with the bad kids and dabbles in Satan worshipping, to comic effect. Little Sister is like the story of that Catholic girl all grown up, on her way to becoming a full-fledged nun.
Addison Timlin is perfectly cast as Colleen, the nun-to-be, who’s hidden herself away from her dysfunctional family and formerly suicidal mother (Ally Sheedy) for three years. She stares at the clock while eating her sad taco bowl salad with the other sisters, all decades older than she is, before hitting the club to see an art show — two women dressed as airplanes circle a cardboard replica of the twin towers while soundbites from G.W. and Condi blast from a stereo. Little Sister is set in 2008, and if you don’t remember, that was exactly our national art scene during the last Iraq War. Throughout, the news blathers on about Obama, about the war, and especially about Colleen’s brother Jacob (Keith Poulson), whose face is ravaged and disfigured by a bomb that hit his convoy. But now that he’s home, Colleen feels the urge to see him and reconnect.
Colleen is meek, lips pursed, doe eyes downturned like Winona Ryder’s circa 1990, but when she transforms herself into old Colleen — the freak with the homemade Manic Panic pink haircut — she’s altogether genuinely goth, performing a lip-synced dance to Gwar’s “Have You Seen Me?” with a bowl of red Jell-O “blood” and two creepy baby dolls. The dance is the only thing able to break Jacob’s cold shell; he’s predictably not feeling like himself now that his face has melted, though Clark refuses to let the narrative devolve into a tearjerker. In fact, this is a remarkably funny and sweet story, carried by subtlety and nostalgia. My only complaint is that the supporting cast does not live up to the high bar set by Timlin and Sheedy; sometimes they act as though they’re in a wacky comedy, when this is clearly a dark comic drama.
As a woman who grew up Catholic, who fell into the comfort of a merry band of sarcastic goth-punks to ease the pain of adolescence, and who lost one of those from the crew to the war in Iraq, I feel this movie. And I highly doubt I’m alone in this. Clark taps into a tumultuous period of our recent history, when we were rolling the dice for even a hint of hope. The hero of this story isn’t Obama, though, but a young, devoted woman who keeps the faith when it seems like everything is turning to shit. So, yeah, it’s about a fucked-up family, but Little Sister is also about how everything’s going to be OK.