“Are you monsters?”
You’ve seen this before: a young person going through an existential crisis returns to their childhood home where they reconnect with their quirky relatives and old friends. It’s a familiar set-up that indie movies have hammered into the ground with a blunt object for over a decade. Yet Zach Clark’s sweet, melancholy comedy Little Sister subverts this tired formula with an honest humanity that other quirk-based indies can’t even touch.
Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin) is about to take her vows and become Sister Joan of Arc. On the verge of nun-hood, she seems listless and unsure of her vocation — a fact that The Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton!) picks up on instantly. Emotionally wrought and juggling questions of faith, Colleen receives an email from her estranged mother (Ally Sheedy) revealing that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has “come home.” Colleen borrows the Reverend Mother’s car and heads back home.
Director Clark doesn’t tip his hand right away, instead letting Colleen’s visit home unfold organically while revealing more and more about her family and her past. We see that before she decided to become a nun Colleen was goth to the extreme (“I didn’t recognize you without all the Marilyn Manson shit on your face!” an old acquaintance cheerfully says). We also learn that her brother Jacob was in the military, and was badly disfigured in Iraq. Now back home, he hides in a guest house, banging away on a drum set all hours of the night. We also learn that Colleen and her mother — who bears the noticeable marks of a suicide attempt on her wrists — have a strained, pained relationship, and that both her mother and father (Peter Hedges) are daily drug-users.
With an autumnal backdrop on the eve of the 2008 Presidential Election, there’s an intermingled air of hope and melancholy here. Jacob, his face reduced to a mass of scar tissue, is understandably resistant to the outside world. His girlfriend Tricia (Kristin Slaysman) has stuck by him after his injury, but the relationship is clearly in turmoil. Colleen hopes that by returning home she can draw her brother out and possibly mend some emotional fences with her mother in the process — which is easier said than done considering how frantic her mother seems to be.
At the center of this all is Addison Timlin’s remarkable performance. Somehow finding the right balance between the two sides of her character — Colleen loves GWAR and has an old bedroom decorated with upside crosses, yet she’s still a virgin, never had a beer and doesn’t know what the term BBW stands for — Timlin is the glue that holds both this film and the fractured family at its center together. Timlin takes what could’ve easily been a collection of unbelievable quirks and forges a living, breathing person. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
Little Sister doesn’t break new ground, nor is it overly plot-centric. Instead, it relies on the damaged people that live within it as they all struggle to keep going on, to keep trying. It’s a simple message, but sometimes a simple message is the one you most need to hear. “Are you monsters?” a boy asks when he comes upon the scarred Jacob and gothed-out Colleen in the woods. “Yeah, we’re monsters,” Jacob replies after a beat. Near the end of the film, the characters throw a big blow-out Halloween party where they’re decked out in their finest ghoulish regalia. Monsters — but monsters together. They’ve found each other. Sometimes that’s the best anyone can ask for.
A version of this review appeared on July 29, 2016