“Fail to see the tragic? Turn it into magic!”
- Marilyn Manson's "Dope Hat"
Rarely does a film open with the intensity of Marilyn Manson lyrics on screen and then evolve into such a low-key family drama. Going into this film blindly, you might ask yourself, what do a pink haired nun and disfigured war vet have in common? Stumped? Well, Zach Clark’s whimsically double entendre titled film, "Little Sister", proves that the two entities in question, a man and his "soon-to-be-full-blown-nun" little sister, have a lot more in common than you’d think. The bind between them? Well, how about the inner gothic turmoil regarding coming home, expressed through those very opening Manson lyrics. Clark’s film takes on the all too common indie trope of returning home to find oneself and deconstructs it through his signature offbeat lens while still being ruthlessly relatable and lighthearted all at once. Watching a bloody, pink haired nun lip-synching to Gwar never seems out of this world. It actually feels strikingly familiar.
Colleen (Addison Timlin), is a NYC-based nun about to take her first vows into official sisterhood. An ex-goth and keen admirer of performance art, she borrows her supervisor’s car to return to Asheville, NC, reacquainting herself with a family on the brink of a breakdown. A drug dependent mother (Ally Sheedy), a failed actor of a father (Peter Hedges), a reckless activist friend (Molly Plunk) and Jacob (Keith Poulson), her disfigured brother, newly returned home from Iraq, make up the buckling family.
Upon meeting the rather unusual crew, we see how the film's title “Little Sister” suddenly takes on both its religious and secular meaning. Colleen continues navigating her devotion to becoming a nun while reestablishing her relationship with an older brother who doesn’t quite know how to return to normality. Perhaps it can be blamed on its underlying religious tones, but there is a pervasive sense of peacefulness to this film when peace seems to have no business being around at all. Hardcore pasts and dark presents combine to give the future a sort of heavenly glow for this lot.
It's not only the subdued handling of the gothic-flavored religious subtext that makes “Little Sister” stand out as much more than an off-kilter family drama. It's also that the film is placed within the context of the lead up to the 2008 election. This is emphasized by a selection of embedded Obama speeches, championing hope and stimulating a desire for change. Colleen’s religious vocation, Jacob’s scarred normality, his girlfriend’s still burning lust, and their mother’s piling addictions all tie into something much larger than themselves within these disarmingly honest circumstances.
Clark also makes a spectacular use of text overlay throughout the film - not only with the opening Manson lyrics but also by announcing the passing days of Colleen's quest. As God is understood to have created the world in six days - how many days will it take Colleen to salvage her own world? You can find out by supporting this clever, unaffected indie about a series of flawed but honest homecomings in a politically changing landscape. Filmmaker Zach Clark is a name to keep on your indie radar. With this latest must-watch addition to his filmography ranks, he marches on with "Little Sister" at an impressive beat.