BY STEVE ERICKSON | Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” doesn’t offer much grand spectacle. It’s comic, but more often weird than laugh-out-loud funny. (My view may be colored by the fact that only one other person turned up to the screening I attended.) Mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg is an executive producer, and his company Forager Films is distributing “Little Sister.”
But if Clark’s film has roots in mumblecore, it ventures beyond the “young people talking about relationships” template of that movement’s early films. It takes religion and politics seriously. Simultaneously, it gestures toward horror movies: most of its dramatic climax takes place at a Halloween party.
In October 2008, novitiate nun Colleen (Addison Timlin) lives in a convent in Brooklyn. She only has intermittent Internet access and generally ignores the emails from her mother Joani (Ally Sheedy) that address her as “Sweet Pea.” One day, she learns that her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has just returned from fighting in the Iraq War after almost being burned alive. He’s maimed beyond recognition. Borrowing a car from her Mother Superior, she drives down to her parents’ house in Asheville, North Carolina. Her bedroom remains untouched from her Goth days. She discovers that Jacob has become a recluse and endures a passive-aggressive relationship with her parents.
Clark takes a long time introducing Jacob to us. He’s heard and talked about long before he’s seen, much like Harry Lime in “The Third Man.” He plays heavy metal beats on a drum kit incessantly, seemingly too bored to do anything else and too ashamed to go outside. He’s scared of intimacy with his fiancée — both partners satisfy themselves with Internet porn or explicit chat sessions. When we finally get to see Jacob’s burned face, one can understand why — the makeup job on Poulson is extremely convincing. A young boy asks “Are you a monster?”; at a pharmacy, a woman tells him that he’s a hero and he should be grateful about Obama’s upcoming election. Both responses seem understandable and dehumanizing in equal measure; at least the woman is old enough to know she’s being condescending
At the beginning of “Little Sister,” Colleen has never had sex, drunk alcohol, or used drugs. By contrast, her parents smoke pot heavily, and her mom mixes it with a wide variety of prescription antidepressants. In such a household, Colleen’s idea of teen rebellion was limited to flirting with the occult, which she eventually flipped on its head by embracing Catholicism. (Clark finds a nice visual analogue for this: visiting her old room for the first time, Colleen turns an upside-down cross on her wall back to the right side up.)
“Little Sister” isn’t the ‘80s sitcom “Family Ties,” but there’s something similar in its vision of youth rebelling against post-hippie parents by flushing their stash down the toilet. It shares Colleen’s view that Joani is just numbing herself against the inevitable responsibilities and disappointments of life. When Joani stores her psychedelic mushrooms in the refrigerator, it almost ends in tragedy.
The promise of “hope” and “change” that Obama campaigned on seems a long way off, but it’s constantly evoked through “Little Sister.” Rather than making the personal political, it makes the political personal. Obama/ Biden ’08 stickers are everywhere. The family goes to a debate party. No one has any real political discussions, seemingly because it’s assumed that everyone sides with Obama. Colleen gets freaked out by a performance art piece protesting the Bush administration she watches in a Brooklyn nightclub. The only hope and change that really matters to the characters, despite their interest in politics and the damage the Iraq War has done to Jacob’s body, lies within the family.
“Little Sister” finds the weirdness in normalcy. It suggests that these days becoming a nun might be more daring than smoking pot, but only if you hang onto your love of Goth and heavy metal music. (This is epitomized by a bizarre set piece between Colleen and Jacob, set to a song by the theatrical metal band Gwar.) It’s conservative in a way that could only stem from rebellious roots.
LITTLE SISTER | Directed by Zach Clark | Forager Films | Opens Oct. 14 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | Metrograph.com