Wikipedia description: “Little Sister is a 2016 American dark comedy film written and directed by Zach Clark. The film stars Addison Timlin as a young nun visiting her childhood home after her brother’s return from Iraq.”
I remember seeing promising filmmaker Zach Clark’s films Modern Love is Automatic (2009) and Vacation! (2010) at the Edinburgh Film Festival years ago. I remember liking both films but thinking they were very indie and had limited commercial potential.
He’s come a long way since his extreme indie roots, exhibit A) this critically acclaimed dark comedy co-starring 80´s legends Ally Sheedy and Barbara Crampton. I remember seeing the trailer for Little Sister and thinking it looked quirky, stylish, and intriguing, and I hadn’t seen anything of Clark’s for a long time.
Why I Took it off the List
I was in the mood for something a little less horror-thriller than the films I reviewed on Day 4 and Day 5 and thought I’d check out a comedy/drama instead. Little Sister was near the top of the list and I was curious to see how Clark had developed as a filmmaker from his previous work.
Also, for some reason, I have recently been listening to ‘White Wedding’ by Billy Idol pretty much on repeat, and the lyric ‘Hey, Little Sister, Shotgun!” was a good reminder to finally check out this film!
Spoilers? Nope! I may include spoilers in some reviews but not in this one. If I do include spoilers, I’ll give you fair warning.
Review of Little Sister
I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: Little Sister has a lot in common with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), which is almost freaky since it came out a year later.
The protagonist is a quirky nonconformist who comes from a deeply dysfunctional family. She is trying to reconcile her catholic faith with rebellious tendencies. She goes by a ‘cute’ nickname. It’s set in the 2000s and offers subtle period details in the background.
Also like Lady Bird, it’s a coming-of-age story that treats its characters with impressive empathy and understanding, although Little Sister displays far more of a punk-rock aesthetic and attitude than the comparatively vanilla later film.
Addison Timlin’s protagonist is far less of a headstrong, self-assured sort than Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird. When we first meet her, Colleen is a quiet, nervy young nun trying her best to help the needy and convince her Reverend Mother (Crampton, who is great but needed more screen time!) that she belongs in the convent.
Her life is disrupted when she receives an email from her estranged mother informing her that her brother, an Iraq war vet, has returned home with serious injuries and her presence might help the healing process.
Although this sounds like the premise for a standard-issue indie drama, the opening quote from Marilyn Manson has already cued us in to the fact that this film has its own personality going on, and the true delights of this charming film come when we learn who Colleen used to be, and in many ways, still is.
The drama of the injured brother seems to promise a depressing set-up, yet Little Sister is consistently funny, surprising, and somewhat adorable, and distinguishes itself with its dark humor and a lot of compassion for its characters.
Timlin Continues to Prove her Acting Chops
I remember being impressed by Addison Timlin’s spunky performances in Odd Thomas (2013) and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014), which really were among the highlights of both films. But she brings another level to her performance as ‘Sweet Pea’, whose wary reserve soon gives way to acceptance and love.
Among the rest of the cast, Ally Sheedy deserves plaudits for her role as Joan, Colleen’s mother, whose regret and longing for acceptance shines brightly through her somewhat manic, aggressive exterior.
Keith Paulson is also effective as brother Jacob, and Kristen Slaysman proves unexpectedly sweet and vulnerable as his heartbroken fiance Tricia.
Fun and Satisfying Narrative
All in all, Little Sister is a fairly straightforward comedy/drama, but it stands out for its sensitive insight into family dynamics, as well as the offbeat style and quirky, underground-informed humor that Clark employed in his previous features.
One thing I absolutely loved about the film is that it didn’t force the main character to choose between her two quite disparate identities: she simply accepts that she was that way before and is a different way now, and both parts are equally acceptable.
In fact, that could well be the logline for the film, as this philosophy, employed with an impressive amount of empathy by Clark, informs the arcs of the majority of the characters in the story.
The only false note the film struck for me was during the climax, which gets a little bit too manic and weird a little bit too fast, but even then Clark has fun with the developments, and everything is nicely tied up by the end.
Final Score: 8/10
Worth checking out?
Little Sister (2016)
Written and Directed by Zach Clark
Check out my next review for my opinion on a recent comedy horror.