You know those strange little marvels of a movie that scritch-scratch at you long after you’ve seen them? Writer/director Zach Clark‘s goth-nun-centered “Little Sister,” has its nails darkly painted and primed to snag your heart.
Addison Timlin stars as Colleen “Sweet Pea” Lunsford, a timid, young nun facing doubts ahead of her final vows. She’s a misfit to both the hipster Brooklyn community that mocks her modest clothing, and the convent where her colorful sunglasses draw stares. Fatefully, her pot-smoking parents (Ally Sheedy and Peter Hedges) call her home to Asheville, North Carolina. There the estranged little sister, who split after high school, reunites with her big brother (Keith Poulson), a war hero returning from Iraq with a disfigured face and a shattered sense of self.
While the premise might seem the stuff of tearjerkers, Clark’s film is infused with a bright warmth that radiates through unexpected yet evocative visual details. Sweet Pea’s childhood room reveals her Marilyn Manson-obsessed goth girl past, complete with a forgotten jar of Manic Panic, an upside-down crucifix, and a handmade card from her big brother that speaks volumes. “For my spooky little sister,” it begins, “I think you are a superstar. So for your 16th birthday, we’re going to see GWAR!” Etched in crayon and kept safe in a drawer, this simple memento signifies not only their shared love of gore-drenched heavy metal, but also the deep bond that might save them both.
Clark guides his cast with a deft hand, earning nuanced performances that create a beautiful balance of sweetness and cynicism. Sheedy stings as an anxiety-stricken mom, frustrated she still doesn’t understand her daughter. Hedges plays her perfect partner, seemingly softer, but still sharply aware of the tricky dynamics of that mother-daughter bond. Poulson—his face made expressionless by prosthetic burn makeup—relies predominantly on his voice, a flat growl ever on the verge of cracking from exhaustion, pain, or surrender. Kristin Slaysman brings a challenging chipperness as his fiancée, who grasps at straws of sex and encouragement to pull her beau back from the brink. And knitting all of these tones together is Timlin in the kind of performance that launches indie ingénues to hotly sought starlet status.
Timlin is mesmerizing, whether she’s chirping out faint answers like a bird afraid to fly, lip-syncing wildly with fake blood and mutilated baby dolls to amuse her reclusive brother, or turning vigilante commando when a Halloween party goes way wrong—thanks in part to some sneaky drug-laced treats! In a heartwarming evolution, we see Sweet Pea transform from the humble nun to the abrasive goth girl of her past, to the curious new creation of her future. Clark sets these stages apart with the clichéd visual cue of hair dye (blond to pink to brown). But Timlin makes distinctions all her own, tweaking Sweet Pea’s passivity, playfulness, and provocations to create a unique yet universal arc of growth. All this builds to a bittersweet climax where a teary-eyed Sheedy confesses, “I didn’t get that moment that everything was okay. I don’t think those moments exist. All you can do is keep trying, and hope that somehow trying can be good enough.”
Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s 2008 hope-centric campaign for the presidency, “Little Sister” delivers a charming black sheep tale rich with tenderness, raw with pain, and spiked with humor. It knowingly nods to the cruel challenges life can chuck our way, but keeps a keen eye on reasons to hope, making for an experience that is entertaining, emotional and inspirational.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos, extra spicy.
Image: Forager Films