Little Sister has the honor of being one of New Yorker writer Richard Brody’s favorite films of 2016, beating out many of the year’s bigger acclaimed releases, such as Arrival (which is not getting enough love), La La Land (which is getting perhaps too much), and Hidden Figures (which I have not yet seen). Yet Little Sister, the fifth movie by director Zach Clark, hasn’t really made headlines or generated much of a splash in general, aside from fairly uniformly good notices, and was not on my radar until I clicked on Netflix’s “Recently Added” button looking for something new to watch. While Little Sister has its strong points, such as a quietly emotive lead performance from Addison Timlin as a nun-in-training visiting her family, the movie tries to juggle far too many narrative balls, if you will, and thus its barely ninety-minute runtime feels like an endless string of half-baked and undeveloped themes, including but surely not limited to the following: the necessary navigation of tense familial relationships, the devastation and unpopularity of the Iraq War, the implications of the 2008 presidential election, the pain and struggles of dealing with mental illness, and the fundamental discomfort of negotiating one’s current self with one’s past self. All of these ideas are touched on during the course of Little Sister, but none are actually developed to a satisfying conclusion beyond a perfunctory acknowledgment. Strangely unexplored among these many plot threads, however, is actually one that might have been more relevant to the narrative: the role of faith. Namely, what drove Colleen (Timlin) to shed her former goth self and leave her family behind to pursue becoming a nun? Even by the end of the movie, we still don’t really understand what drives her to choose this fairly unconventional path, even as she takes her vows (one year after the main story) in the final moments.
It’s such a shame that Little Sister fails to hold up as it goes on, especially with such a strong story to explore: Colleen, a novitiate in New York, goes to visit her semi-estranged family in North Carolina after her disfigured veteran brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) returns from Iraq. And it starts off promisingly enough as a quirky take on the homecoming movie. Colleen is given five days to visit her family and sort out her hesitations about fully becoming a nun, because, as the Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton) tells her drily, “it took six days for God to create the universe. You should be able to get your act together in five.” And in the early third of the movie, Little Sister seems devoted to exploring the impossibilities and nuances of the clichéd idea, so popular in media, that a short, fixed period of time is just what someone needs to get their life back on track. After all, the kind of radical transformation among a squabbling family from bitterness to acceptance, taken to its filmic nadir in This is Where I Leave You (2014), just doesn’t really happen that easily in real life. Even if changes come about quickly, people generally need time to process said changes, and so the five-day time span seems more like an excuse to have a ticking clock, a potential sense of urgency to Colleen’s interactions with her family — artificial and not fully justified.
Colleen returns home and immediately butts heads with her mother Joani (Ally Sheedy), whose mental illness, as well as Colleen’s leaving to become a nun, has clearly added tension to what was already an uneasy relationship. Yet what gives Colleen the most trouble upon her return home is the forced reconciliation she needs to make between her current identity as a nun-in-training and her past identity as a goth, because the latter identity is what defined her to the people in her hometown. And the reminders of her past self are everywhere she looks: in the dark, moody decorations of her childhood bedroom; in the reactions of her brother’s friends who barely recognize her; in the reunion with her high school friend Emily (Molly Plunk), a former fellow goth who now works as a political activist-slash-terrorist. In a movie less crammed with ideas that don’t pan out, the decision Colleen eventually makes to draw out her reclusive brother by re-inhabiting her former self — dying her dirty-blond hair bright pink, painting her nails, and destroying a baby doll during a performance to a thoroughly unpleasant metal song — would carry more emotional weight. As it is, we don’t really understand what effect shrugging on the vestiges of her old life even has on her, and it’s frankly a missed opportunity for Little Sister. Especially if Colleen has been having trouble fully committing to her life as a nun, shouldn’t we get more of an examination of what it means for Colleen to be going backwards by dressing as a goth again? Does she even feel as though she is regressing? Does she do it only to reconnect with her brother, or because she wants one last hurrah with her former identity before giving it up entirely? We just don’t know, and the movie suffers as a result.
Despite starting with a fairly interesting and unique premise, Little Sister actually becomes more humdrum and typical of the genre as it goes on. It would have been more exciting and original for there not to be some kind of loud, yelling, cathartic confrontation between Colleen and Joani, because up until the last third of the movie the flinty way they speak and glance off one another actually reflects how real people act. Yet of course, there’s a confrontation, which leads eventually to mutual understanding — or at least the beginning of it — in a hollow, forced-resolution kind of way. The final sequences of the movie, which involve Joani slipping Colleen pot during a Halloween party, despite the fact that she knows Colleen doesn’t drink, smoke, or even eat meat, rings as hollow, manufactured drama, and the inevitable drunken, drug-induced debauchery of the night leading to Jacob being hospitalized, with the family looking very solemn in the waiting room feels incredibly predictable. Little Sister ends with a happy, upbeat postscript, with Colleen, hair appropriately black and goth, taking her vows and then going to her brother’s wedding to his long-suffering fiancée Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), seemingly reconciled with her complicated family, and it feels just a little too tidy. Colleen is now both a “little” sister of the cloth and a little sister in her family — but rather than trading in one type of sisterhood for another, she has found a way to be both.
Without Addison Timlin’s central performance as Colleen, the successes in Little Sister would not exist. Her performance is subtle and meek (but in a good way), and the play of expressions on her face is mesmerizing and honest. Ally Sheedy’s Joani is, in contrast, played rather too loudly, while the performances of Kristin Slayman and Peter Hedges as Colleen’s father are hardly memorable — I’m not even sure what the character of Colleen’s father adds to the story. Molly Plunk’s Emily has shades of Heather Matarazzo in The Princess Diaries movies, which is not strictly a bad thing for a character who has such limited screentime. The other strong performance is from Keith Poulson as Jacob, who is severely limited in his ability to emote by virtue of the fact that the character almost always wears large black sunglasses that cover a good part of his face, but still conveys the idea of this ambivalent, unsure former golden boy irreparably harmed by war. On a technical level, some of the wide shots of Colleen’s drive home are incredibly well-composed, yet much of the smaller moments are ruined by unnecessarily shaky camerawork.
Ultimately, it’s not even clear why the narrative involved Colleen having formerly been a goth, except, perhaps, to function as a clear polar opposite of her current sober lifestyle as a nun — indeed, because the issue of Colleen’s faith and motivations for becoming a nun are not examined in a satisfactory way, it’s not entirely clear why Colleen even had to be a nun, rather than merely estranged from her family. Even what she experiences with regards to her brother’s suffering don’t seem to affect her faith one way or another, while a movie more concerned with Colleen herself might have at least given her a smidge of doubt in the existence of God — a test of faith spurred on by a senseless tragedy. Of course, the idea of a movie starring a “goth nun” stands out for the mere fact of its novelty, but that move feels oddly cynical. But even after watching Little Sister twice, I’m still left with questions about the characters, their motivations, and their interiority, and that’s not a good feeling to have after the credits roll.
photos: Little Sister
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