“Little Sister” Turns the Tragic to Magic
by Samantha Anne Carrillo
Equal parts veteran homecoming narrative, dark family dramedy and devotional rom-com, Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” evokes the horror of war, the emotional landmines of the nuclear family and a young woman’s calling to serve a higher power.
Writer-director Clark cut his teeth on the indie film festival circuit, scoring a cult hit in 2013 with “White Reindeer.” In that crowdfunded, tragicomic outing, a milquetoast realtor copes with her husband’s sudden death by partying with the stripper whose services her dearly departed had frequented.
“White Reindeer” injects a dose of Dada into the narrative of a widower mourning. Similarly, “Little Sister” delivers a fresh, wholly original take on combat PTSD, devastating war injuries, familial mental illness, American culture’s alienation from religion and the clergy’s waning social status.
Set astride Hallowmas and the 2008 presidential election, soundbites from President Obama’s “Yes we can” chant/campaign and GOP opposition set the stage for catharsis. Between Clark’s clarity of dramatic vision, Daryl Pittman’s soulful cinematic capture of North Carolina’s verdant landscapes and a soundtrack of quality punk- and death-rock, this film evades simple categorization.
Known for TV roles (“Californication,” “Cashmere Mafia”), actor Addison Timlin plays quasi-titular protagonist Colleen Lunsford with understated authenticity. Recovering goth and nun-in-training Colleen has readied herself for spiritual marriage. Meanwhile, clinically depressed family matriarch Joani (a note-perfect Ally Sheedy) and her mutable husband Bill (Peter Hedges) have cultivated an existence focused entirely on perpetual escapism.
Failed actor Bill medicates his relentless hope with wake-and-bake sessions and heady bubble baths. Joani supplements her mandated psych meds with red wine and medical-grade cannabis and edibles, steeling herself against perpetual disappointment and suicidal ideation. Disfigured and now discharged, Iraq war veteran and prodigal son Jacob (Keith Poulson) sequesters himself in the garage with only his rage and a drum kit.
As Colleen’s first vows draw near, Joani emails, imploring that she visit her brother in their hometown of Asheville, N.C. Despite her reservations, Colleen persuades The Reverend Mother (horror icon Barbara Crampton) to approve five days’ leave and the loan of her car. Returning to the home she fled to pursue a life of structure, Colleen finds her bedroom a time capsule of her Manic Panic-sponsored youth: black lace curtains, an inverted white cross and a CD labeled “Christian Death mix” in the boom box.
Even the lemon-yellow Gothic font of the credits and an epigraph excerpted from the lyrics of Marilyn Manson’s “Dope Hat” somehow never read as kitsch. Nearby oak and pine groves emit isoprene, also the primary hydrocarbon in human breath, which lends the mountains their hazy cerulean coloring. An equivalent emotional haze hangs around a family home in Asheville. A man without a face beats a tattoo of yowls in the garage.
To break through Jacob’s psychic brick wall, Colleen reprises her teenage aesthetic: hot-pink tresses; black lipstick; and a baby doll, a bowl of red Jell-O and a killer interpretative rendition of Gwar’s “Have You Seen Me?” It turns out that an actual nun rocking a habit in an ironic, tasteless display of adolescent rebellion was the psychological hammer needed. A stroll through the woods, an assent to monsterdom and reprised teenage hijinks ensue.
The script, dialogue and lead actors here all shine. As much as Timlin’s lead performance rains down a glitter of beatific presence, my fave character is nearly always the antihero. Here, Sheedy’s acting chops as upper-middle class trainwreck Joani—right down to her microexpressions, comedic and dramatic timing and effortless realism—are scene-stealers. And anyone who saw Michael Fassbender in “Frank” knows that playing an indie role sans a recognizable face is a dramatic feat, and Poulson proves up to the task.
The brilliance of setting a circa-2016 film about war, religion and American culture in 2008 is the audience nostalgia factor. And while unanticipated, the recent U.S. election of a reality show GOP “maverick” (who has an itchy late-night trigger—sorry, I mean Twitter finger) over a lifelong public servant (who, granted, lacks outdoor plumbing) simply adds fuel to the American political debate.
Mom does spike the Halloween cupcakes without her family’s consent but the rest of this strange, prickly family reunion is best served cold. Rest assured: no matter how weird you are, resolution and redemption are possible. While erring may be human and forgiveness divine, day-to-day engagement in the lives of our loved ones—no matter how icky or banal—is a virtuous and even joyful occupation.
Wednesday, Nov. 30-Saturday, Dec. 3, 8:30 p.m.
3405 Central NE
Samantha Anne Carrillo is a nuevomexicana writer & editor, a freelance social media consultant, a fourth-wave feminist and a devout situationist. Find her at facebook.com/samanthaannenm.