Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.
There aren’t many films with a nun at their center without the words Sister or Act in their title. Far fewer start by plastering a Marilyn Manson quote over the screen as if they are the words of scripture. But that is part of the appeal of Little Sister and Zach Clark as a filmmaker. He makes films that are almost like something that you’ve seen before but with a certain indefinable kind of special. Clark’s films show an appreciation for the medium and a gentle nod to what has come before but with a point of view all his own.
Add to the well written screenplay a cast that seems catered to this cadence and the result is a family that is almost too familiar for comfort.
Clark strives to strike a balance in the construction of his characters between what is intriguing and what is reality. In Little Sister, we find ourselves captivated by Colleen (Addison Timlin) because she is wholly unique and endlessly complicated. Clark allows the audience to come to know his characters organically. He doesn’t force any exposition down your throat and casually fills in the backstories as the story unfolds. And Colleen is not the only case, all of the characters come bearing their own intrinsic eccentricities. Yes, all. Even the character of Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), the beleaguered fiancé of the war veteran. In perhaps a less caring writer-director’s hands, Tricia would drift into the walls, a ball of clichés, but not here. Her role is certainly not to drive the story, but the attention to detail in her construction makes the world feel all the fuller.
These balanced performances are endlessly necessary to Little Sister because its family is surprisingly weird. Timlin is so comfortably uncomfortable as Colleen, a death metal lover who ran into the arms of Christ in the quest for some semblance of normalcy. Keith Poulson’s damaged Jacob does something with very little, although he is persistently overshadowed by Timlin. Ally Sheedy’s mother may be a bit too typical to be believed, with her penchant for drugs and inability to parent reading as more plot contrivance than fulfilling character development. This is a film of quiet subtlety and Sheedy is like a bullhorn, all blast and little nuance.
Timlin is so comfortably uncomfortable as Colleen, a death metal lover who ran into the arms of Christ in the quest for some semblance of normalcy.
As well handed as its characters, there are large chunks of Little Sister that just plain don’t work. The persistent need to weave in politics and its strange positioning just prior to the Obama presidency never actually works. It cripples the film somewhat, as the story could thrive almost timelessly if it weren’t for its need to be topical. It is an unattractive addition that distracts more than it adds. Additionally, the cinematography of Daryl Pittman leaves plenty to be desired. Needlessly shaky and inconsistent, its dull darkness distracts from the actions on screen, especially in a strange Halloween montage that feels hopelessly out of place.
The thing about Little Sister is that it flirts so closely with the unexceptional. Its plot generality threatens to derail it and its push towards a happy ending has the potential to render everything before it as disjointed. But the strength of Zach Clark’s writing and character construction keep everything moving forward well enough. The conclusion doesn’t force a change upon its characters because that just isn’t what happens in real life. The people end the story about as screwed up as they started, but they have found a way to live with the oddities instead of pushing against them. It leads you to believe that it will take the easy way out and just tie everything up neatly with a bow, but even as it approaches happiness, it never sacrifices its weird soul. Little Sister is a strange little family drama populated by weird characters. If it were the film of another filmmaker, it’d be plain and boring. Thankfully, it has Zach Clark at its helm allowing it to ooze a dark charm while never forgetting itself.