In Little Sister, an endearing dark comedy written and directed by Zach Clark, Addison Timlin plays Colleen Lunsford, a 20-ish girl who lives at a convent in Brooklyn, where she’s preparing to take her vows and become a full-fledged nun. Colleen unexpectedly finds herself drawn back to her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, where her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has just returned from Iraq, after suffering a severe injury that left his entire face permanently disfigured.
The movie takes place in October 2008, and the drama of the presidential election between Obama and McCain foregrounds the comparatively small-scale, yet no-less urgent, drama of Colleen’s family. Colleen’s mother, Joani (played by the wonderful Ally Sheedy), struggles with depression (which fueled a suicide attempt a few years before); Joani never completely explodes, but Sheedy’s performance is so fine-tuned that we get the queasy feeling she could erupt at any minute, and that life with Joani is a constant dance through a minefield. Colleen’s dad, Bill (Peter Hedges), is simply trying to keep the peace; he doesn't know what to do to change things, so he focuses on avoiding conflict as much as possible. (When Colleen says something to set her mother off, Bill silently signals Colleen to please quit, a pantomime of meek desperation.)
Meanwhile there’s Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), Jacob’s wife, a beautiful young woman who’s found herself in a tough situation, living with the parents of a husband who no longer resembles the man she married. (And it’s not the injuries I refer to, but the personality shift, the emotional disconnect, that hovers over Jacob like a dark cloud.) What’s more, Jacob has seemingly lost interest in Tricia; it’s as if he cannot imagine anyone finding him desirable anymore, so he too feels nothing but disgust for himself. (This is unfair to Tricia, who tries to spice up their fledgling marriage with sexy lingerie; later, we see her surfing a singles’ dating website: more desperation.)
Little Sister explores the ways family members radically change—or, in some cases, radically remain the same. Colleen’s conversion to Catholicism seems genuine, yet she wavers when confronted with memories of her old life: her bedroom, preserved like a museum to her goth-metal teenage years, still bears all the posters and clothes and the upside down cross, and there’s still a tube of Colleen’s trusty black lipstick in a drawer. When she can’t get an audience with Jacob, Colleen dons her old look, and lip syncs to the song “Have You Seen Me” by Gwar, a song that was once very special to them in its angry, clever, satirical anarchy. Jacob, who’s been hollowed out by the war, needs the old Colleen to bring him back to life. Indeed, Colleen is the catalyst for this family’s particular form of redemption. It’s no Hollywood form of redemption—there are still shards of hurt and anger and waves of dysfunction running through this unit—but in Little Sister, what matters is the little bits of the broken that we find, and what we do with them in the name of re-building.
Little Sister probably errors on the side of being too hip and cool, like many independent movies. It has that homegrown, quaint feeling that only hipsters can provide so masterfully, but there’s a heart beating inside this movie too, and the performances of Timlin and Sheedy (and the marvelous Barbara Crampton, who gets too little screen time as Colleen’s supportive but frustrated Mother Superior back in New York) are reason enough to see this film.