Zach Clark’s Little Sister offers a new twist on the Quirky Family Dramedy in which the quirks aren’t mere personality tics, but signs of genuine trauma.
The Quirky Family Dramedy is a familiar genre, but director-screenwriter Zach Clark has made a charming and well crafted version of it in Little Sister. The quirks, in this case, aren’t mere personality tics, but genuine trauma: mother Joani (an outsize Ally Sheedy) attempted suicide and older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has shut himself away after suffering disfiguring burns. Healing, for some family members, comes via black lipstick and mind-altering substances. But when meek soon-to-be-nun Colleen (Addison Timlin) returns home for the first time in three years, the little sister confronts her past, and the family moves forward together.Little Sister draws us in, making us feel like an invisible member of this dysfunctional family.Click To Tweet
Little Sister draws us in, making us feel like an invisible member of this dysfunctional family — albeit one squarely in the corner of the titular little sister, Colleen. As an almost-nun in the middle of busy New York, we watch Colleen nervously decline an offer of cocaine and negotiate with her convent’s no-bullshit Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton) to borrow the car. She’s making her way in the world, but something seems missing. This changes when she returns home. It’s clear that Colleen feels like a stranger in her old life at first, but as family bonds reassert themselves, the film seems to welcome us into the family along with Colleen herself. When Colleen drags Jacob on his first trip out into the world, Clark shoots them from the backseat of their car as the siblings kibbitz in the front seat, putting the audience in the position of an unseen passenger invited along for the ride. The sound of Jacob’s rock drumming punctuates the film, adding an undercurrent of energy to even quiet scenes.
Clark doesn’t romanticise his protagonists, but in his empathy for them, he does let them off the hook for a lot. Joani is overbearing and volatile, for all that she loves her children: “You can be anything you want!” she insists — except, apparently, a vegetarian nun like Colleen. (She also decides that spiking her teetotalling daughter’s dinner is an acceptable form of bonding.) Both Jacob and his girlfriend, Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), engage in a little therapeutic infidelity rather than addressing the pressures facing their relationship. And we’re asked to forgive Colleen on the occasion of her homecoming, although she ran away and cut off contact when her mother was at her most vulnerable. The film seems to suggest that empathy is enough to make all this consequence-free. If we just love each other enough, then our wrongs can melt away. Characters sometimes apologise, but they never seem to feel regret. This is difficult to swallow in a film about confronting the past.
Colleen, in particular, remains a bit of a cipher. She’s mutable, sliding easily from mousy novitiate to Manic Panic pink to some stage in between, clad in both a sensible cardigan and deep wine lipstick. Colleen’s character shifts (not evolutions, since she appears to move easily between versions of herself) can be parsed through her makeup, which ranges from nonexistent to Marilyn Manson, but she ends up right back where she started. It’s not clear how her encounter with her younger self affects her, or why she finds it so easy to don and doff the trappings of her hellraising teenage years. Colleen seems to have fled to the convent seeking refuge from her family and its complications, but then found a genuine purpose there.Clark doesn’t romanticise his protagonists, but in his empathy for them, he does let them off the hook for a lot.Click To Tweet
So why does she have to come home? To put the past to rest, perhaps, and to confirm that she’s joining the convent for the right reasons. But we nevertheless retain a distance from Colleen’s inner life that we don’t feel from, say, Joani or Tricia — two characters who are much more transparent, though they have less screen time. Colleen seems far too comfortable inhabiting several versions of herself at once while still implying that they’re contradictory — after all, she dyes her hair back to brown after colouring it pink to make Jacob smile. The Little Sister’s journey is sweet in places and often funny, but we still feel like we’ve been watching her from afar rather than walking with her.