The summary for Zach Clark’s new indie flick Little Sister walks a razor’s edge of “could be great, could be awful.” Addison Timlin stars as ex-goth, now aspiring nun C0lleen, who receives an urgent email from her estranged mother (Ally Sheedy). Her brother (Keith Poulson), disfiguringly wounded in Iraq, has come out of the hospital, but he won’t talk to anyone. Will Colleen come home, reconcile with her family, help her brother reenter normal life, and figure out if she’s really ready to take her final vows?
The movie’s opening isn’t promising. Colleen (white, obviously) proves her goodness of spirit by buying food for a (black, obviously) homeless woman, who exists to be black and homeless and grateful. But this is a rare off-key note in an otherwise beautifully balanced, charming, weird and gentle film.
Little Sister is set in 2008, in Asheville, NC. The setting and storyline could easily have overbalanced in one direction or another: too much preachy politics, too much religion or too much self-consciously edgy unreligion, too much goth shtik or too much actual family tragedy. Instead Clark as writer and director knows just when to pull back or switch gears. He lets every moment rest lightly and then settle in the audience’s mind.
Colleen’s family is genuinely a mess; it’s also genuinely kooky. And there are moments which are simultaneously harsh and tender, the kind of wrongheaded and disturbing thing we all accept in our families: Mom hates that we can lock our doors, which is a bad sign, by the way, but we’ll all just grin and bear it; you really shouldn’t drug your family, but if you’re the kind of mom who might, your kids might learn to roll with it.
The acting is fine (Taylor Jones as little Colleen, seen only in home movies, is an unexpected standout), the fall colors in the misty autumn woods of Asheville are stunning, there’s a bit too much shaky camerawork but the direction is otherwise inoffensive. What really makes Little Sister work—what makes it such a refreshing joy—is the script. This is a forgiving film. Everything is treated seriously but not lugubriously. Colleen really prays. Her prayers are often scored to Marilyn Manson-type goth rock—not only for comic effect but, I think, to suggest a soul sometimes in adolescent turmoil and sometimes in ecstasy. Everybody is damaged and damaging; people genuinely betray each other in this movie, and they are genuinely forgiven. People do things they think will help, and those things are almost always really bad ideas, but they sort of do help anyway.
Also, this may be a personal issue, but Little Sister does not do the thing so many movies do now, of setting up a choice and then cutting to black right before the choice is made. Several characters have actual decisions to make here, and we get to learn what they chose. This movie, in other words, has a real ending.
At the film’s end we finally see flamboyantly miserable Colleen give a huge, sunlit smile. I couldn’t help but join her.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.