Centered on a young nun, Colleen (Addison Timlin), about to take her vows only to suddenly be summoned to square with her family history, Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” suggests an infinitely quirkier “Ida”, just without the monochrome and squared off aspect ratio, and with a much sunnier disposition despite its Goth aesthetic. “Ida” was set in 1960s Poland, in the aftermath of its communist takeover, a country’s struggle with its past filtered through the prism of this one young woman’s journey. “Little Sister” sort of does this too, insistently, almost too insistently (ensuring an Obama/Biden bumper sticker is in the foreground of a frame might be overkill), set in the fall of 2008, in the run-up to the Hope that was Barack Obama’s election, meaning the film still lingers in and grapples with the residue of the Dubya era.
That era is emblemized in the presence of Jacob Lunsford (Keith Poulson), a soldier who has just returned from Iraq with his body and face horrifically scarred on account of an explosion. Struggling to re-adapt and locking himself away in the dark where he pounds out heavy metal beats on his drumset, Jacob’s mom Joni (Ally Sheedy), who prefers to lock herself away with booze and pills and weed, emails her semi-estranged 24 year old daughter Colleen, away at a Brooklyn convent, for help. In the midst of quietly questioning her own faith, Colleen asks her mother superior (Barbara Crampton) if she can take a brief leave. “It took God six days to create the universe,” says mother superior. “You should be able to get your act together in five.”
Jacob might be in an incredible pain but you wouldn’t necessarily know it on account of how Poulson approaches the role – that is, as someone completely withdrawn into his self. He’s never really angry; in fact, he’s exceedingly polite, just never able to communicate beyond a few basic words. This takes a toll on Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), his girlfriend, a small but vital character, who flirts with other men by light of the internet but only because the man she really loves, and willingly stays with, struggles to perform. It’s the doctrine of two movie truths, and it imbues most of “Little Sister”, including Timlin’s performance itself, where she is equally believable as a retired Goth and aspirant nun, conveying that for how superficially different these two lifestyles might appear there nonetheless is a similarity in how such lazy misconceptions can be attributed to either a nun’s habit or a Goth’s black.
As Colleen tries to unburden Jacob, it gradually becomes clear that the pivotal relationship is not, in fact, sister and brother but daughter and mother. Sheedy’s performance as Joni cuts a couple ways too, offering strained happiness that clearly masks depression and the depression itself, which at times can erupt into hysterical rage. Joni’s similarities to Sheedy’s most famous role – basket case Allison Reynolds of “Breakfast Club” fame – are overt, and it is not hard to imagine where Joni dressed up an adolescent Colleen in black and encouraged her to stick to the dark side of the street.
As a result, Colleen’s religious rebellion makes that much more sense, and even as she flirts with the aesthetics of her younger self, briefly dyeing her hair pink, hissing at strangers and indulging in a few old tunes, the character never completely gives in to nostalgia. It’s that rare movie where going home isn’t in and of itself the answer but the means to unlocking the answer and Clark does a superb job of allowing this to gradually emerge over the course of the entire five days rather than simply trotting out an A Ha! Moment. And it makes the film’s third act family Halloween costume party a sly evocation of the holiday’s original Christian intent, where Colleen disguises herself to evade the demons that would pull her back into her past life.
That is a really clever idea, but one partially undone as Joni laces their Halloween treats with hallucinogens and the party gets out of control, purportedly yielding epiphanies. This last ten minutes, however, feels rushed, typified in how at one moment Colleen can be inadvertently tripping so badly that she visualizes her car passenger as a giant bird, only in the next moment to come across not high at all. Clark tries to tie all the story strands together rather than leaving space for ellipsis, even going so far as to proffer a “One Year Later” wrap-up where everything’s peachy keen. A movie so committed to the dichotomy of light and darkness gives itself over to the light completely. “Little Sister” suddenly stops being itself and dresses up as something else.