Let’s hear it for mumblecore, those quirky little independent dramedies that infest the various strata of streaming options, and, in lieu of anything I really want to see not being in cinemas, have given me the chance to see something new this week, albeit it’s a film that was released in the States back in October. Zach Clarks flick promised a spiritual journey of self-reflection and some serious family problems, and with Addison Timlin in the lead, it stood a half-decent chance of being half-decent. Did it take that chance, or was it just another forgettable indy, to be remembered only if the director goes on to greater fame?
Colleen (Timlin), a twentysomething woman preparing for religious vows, reluctantly returns home for the first time in three years when her older brother (Keith Poulson), mauled by a bomb in the Iraq War, finally comes home himself. While there, she must evaluate her own decisions in life, while dealing with the neurotic behaviour of her once suicidal mother (Ally Sheedy).
When it comes to films of this genre, for me they do or die on the basis of the point they are trying to make, all too often getting lost in a morass of arthouse techniques and inexperienced filmmakers unable to adequately get across what they want to get across. And while Little Sister does struggle a little in this regard, it’s still a worthwhile enough experience, as we follow Colleen’s journey back into her past, as she struggles to reconcile the person she was with the person she is aiming to be.
That sounds a little trite as a write it, and, I suppose, I wouldn’t say that Little Sister is really unpredictable in its plot beats, its unfolding narrative or in its ending. In many ways, it feels like the boilerplate plot of this type of film, interjected with a few unique sequences of only tangential relation. That’s not the worst thing in the world really, and there’s enough on the fringes of Little Sister to keep you engaged.
There’s Colleen’s quest to figure out her own possible future as a nun, in a world where such a choice from such a young woman is seen as abnormal, even in bizarre company: in an early sequence, the performers of an incomprehensible stage show criticising the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks throw smug jibes Colleen’s way when she refuses to partake in their “blow”. There’s her mutilated brother, now so far removed from humanity that he can’t connect to anyone: his constant drum playing calling to mind the way the same instrument was used as a metaphor for internal anger and frustration in Whiplash.
There’s the brothers sexually frustrated fiancée, who feels trapped in their relationship and doesn’t know what to do. There’s the parents, with all of their own foibles and problems, turning to pot to ease the pain and jibing at their daughter’s choice of vocation, as if it is some kind of adolescent rebellion against their own middle-class liberal values. There’s the former best friend, so lost for some purpose in her own life that she turns to extremist PETA raids, arguing, succinctly, that “people need to be terrorists sometimes”.
The point of Little Sister, through the exploration of all these people and how they attempt to find some peace with each other and with themselves, is that everybody, in their own way, is a little or a lot outside the norm. It’s a gruelling process: Colleen reverts back to her Marilyn Manson days of neon pink hair and goth make-up to try and connect with her brother, who has to deal with well-intentioned but brainless strangers who describe he and his fellow soldiers as “wasted lives”. His fiancée turns to internet chat rooms for some sexual fulfilment. Colleen’s mother veers wildly from loving to cruelly abusive. And in the background, almost like he is looming over everything, is Barack Obama and his message of hope and change (the film being set just before his election in 2008), like some kind of distant deity promising people something that is ultimately only attainable by their own effort.
Obama’s presence all throughout the background of this North Carolina set tale seems especially poignant nowadays: the portrayal of the “Asheville” residents is one of empty lip-service to what Obama is offering, and is rendered with believable expertise by the director. This larger scale denial, that the country’s problems can be solved by a new messianic leader, is as empty as Colleen’s mother referring to her suicide attempt as an “accident”. North Carolina went Trump in 2016.
The film can also be seen as a quiet appraisal of the oft-derided “millennial” mindset, with Colleen and her brother mostly played as pathetic spectators unwilling to give much care to the opinions of the world around them and struggling for any kind of meaning. This kind of stuff is mumblecore’s bread and butter, but can grow tiresome rather quickly: luckily Little Sister knows when to reel back. When it comes to the brother character, perhaps xxx would have been better served going a bit more in-depth: as it is, Little Sister offers only a shallow exploration of PTSD in a modern baby-boomer world, easily fixed and easily forgotten.
Timlin’s quiet reserved performance helps carry some of the lesser sections of Little Sister, as the montages stack -up and you might start to feel that the film is wearing its own short running time thin. She’s endearingly sympathetic with just a look and a half-frown, and, like all good mumblecore protagonists, she succeeds because she isn’t all that far removed from all of us. She’s excellent as a young woman not so much caught up in religious fervour, but in a chance to be part of a unique community service.
Sheedy is the only other cast member of real note, now far from her Breakfast Club days (her other role of note in the last while was a barely noticed cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse) and here she proves that she was always more than the mousy girl who barely talked in detention, given a stirring performance as a mother crippled by her own psychological issues. Between them, they give a tour de force of a parent/child relationship caught in repetitive arguments: Timlin’s quiet reaction to some of her mother’s more awful words is a powerful expression of compassion for someone in need.
In the end, while Little Sister will not long stay in the consciousness of the film watching world, or in my own memory if I am being honest, it’s a sweet film with an endearing central character exploring her life, and that I can tolerate for 90 minutes or so. Shot with reserved patience, cast well and scripted excellently, it’s a fine example of what the indy world can still offer, even if you’ll never get to see this kind of thing in theatres. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Forager Films).