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Set in the month prior to the election of President Obama, we meet Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin), a young woman nearing completion of her first vows in becoming a nun. She works to feed the hungry in a corner of New York City, and yet still tries to connect with people her age. She is mostly committed but even her Mother Superior (Barbara Crampton) questions her faith. She ran from home more than three years earlier, disappointed with her family. She then gets word that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has returned from war and had been released from the hospital. Now she must summon the courage to come back. It’s a journey that affects many.
Once home in Asheville, North Carolina, she is pulled back into the troubled family she left behind, led by her nearly broken mother Joani (Ally Sheedy), a weathered, pot-smoking woman with scars on her wrists. Her father (Bill (Peter Hedges) is suitably out of touch, operating an entertainment service and then there is Jacob, now ravaged by his tour of duty, his face and head terribly burned beyond recognition, leaving him a recluse, hiding in his room. It is Joani’s hope that his sister can help him find his way, knowing that they are both a little lost, much like herself.
Written and directed by Zach Clark, Little Sister is clearly a commentary on the tragedy of war and the disconnect that we have between the heroes on the front line and in the news to the embattled and disfigured veterans who come home physically and mentally scarred. It’s not cynical about it, not blaming anyone, just recognizing that there is a line. It has more to say about politics as well, with the upcoming in-movie election, a persistent presence that always hints about the coming hope and change promised by the Obama campaign that in hindsight we are meant to been see as some parts unfulfilled, a natural element of any election. But ultimately, Little Sister is about relationships, especially the bond between an adult brother and sister, one that has always been close but fractured by time and events.
Colleen senses the odd disjoint of time the moment she steps back into her childhood home (no one is home when she arrives). Her room is exactly as she left it, shades of Goth and teenage experimentation layered untouched from years before. She finds comfort too in the ease at which she settles into the routines the house affords. That brings the uncomfortableness with her parents as well who come home and are surprised to see her. Joani is not well mentally, a bitter woman with issues that soil her relationship with Colleen, and Sheedy gives a strong performance as a dark and stringy women constantly on the verge of verbal hostility. It’s some of her best work.
Colleen hooks up with an old high school friend named Emily (Molly Plunk), who in her spare time is an aggressive animal rights activist, so much so she is labeled a terrorist in some circles. Her path is vastly different from Colleen’s, but for a moment, they share post-school experiences, with Colleen having her first beers, and in turn, her first hangover and sickness. Colleen comments that her life has been stunted, a perpetual young person with a censored life.
Then there is Jacob, and we see the great bond these two people have and the chasms that have come to separate them. Colleen, once a wild-ish child, at least in attitude and appearance, has sought a more valued life, and her brother, now forever scarred by his involvement in war have bridges to mend. This is the strength of Little Sister, its depiction of these two adults who are and always have been close. To pull Jacob from his shell, and the ‘monster’ mentality that the film makes efforts to paint, Colleen dons a bright pink wig and face make-up, trying to harken back to their childhood interests in horror and macabre. These moments don’t always ring true, clichéd in bits, but do help generate a sense of great connection between the two that keeps them distant from so many others.
Little Sister is of course, a mixed meaning title, with Colleen being Jacob’s sister and a sister of the church and while it hints at greatness, it merely scratches at the surface of issues it exposes throughout. While there are some solid performances, the overall film is not nearly as deep as it promises, and often feels a little manipulative but its sweet sentimentality and honest approach make it a touching experience.
Director: Zach Clark
Writers: Zach Clark
Stars: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson
Genre: Dark Comedy