Directed by: Zach Clark
Written by: Zach Clark (screenplay), Zach Clark & Melodie Sisk (story)
Starring: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and Peter Hedges
Colleen Lunsford hasn’t been home for a while. The young novitiate (Addison Timlin) made her way from her hometown of Ashville, N.C. to Brooklyn and hasn’t looked back for several years. Little Sister, from writer/director Zach Clark, establishes her life in New York and the rift between her and her mother with quick, economical cuts showing her new routine as her old life gradually, forcefully seeps its way back in. It begins with her mom Joani (an excellent Ally Sheedy) emailing her to tell her that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) is out of the hospital and back home after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War.
The email, which she reads after ignoring her mom’s attempt to contact her by phone, spurs her to temporarily abandon her life of buying food for the homeless, reading to the elderly and attending anti-George W. Bush performance art shows and head South. She asks the head nun if she can borrow her car for the trip; the nun agrees, but makes her agree to a time frame. God created the Earth in six days, she says, so Colleen should be able to attend to her business in less than that. They settle on five, though Colleen doesn’t hold herself to that time frame.
Colleen doesn’t tell anyone she’s coming home, and initially wanders around the empty house looking for her brother. She makes her way to her old room, which is just as she left it years ago: painted black and decked out with an upside down crucifix, band posters and drawers full of Hot Topic ware. When her dad (Peter Hedges) walks in the door to see her standing there he greets her with a warm hug and yells for her mom. Her relationship with her mom appears much more fraught; though Joani is clearly happy to see her daughter, Sheedy gives the character a nervousness and hesitation that breaks the chipper mood. Things deteriorate even more from there, when Joani tries to get her son out of the guest house to come see his sister. Clearly shaken from the interaction with him, she ignores it and changes the subject.
At first, Colleen’s return home seems like a more traditional dysfunctional family story, one of old wounds freshly reopened and resentful black sheep. Clark and his superb cast take Little Sister in surprising, profoundly moving directions, though. Set mostly in October 2008, it centers around the build-up to the election of Barack Obama, focusing on a family that is devastated and exhausted, though defiantly upbeat, at the end of the Bush II era. The Lunsfords were hit hard by Bush’s post-9/11 policies, and though Clark never explicitly says why Colleen left North Carolina, it’s hard not to read her newfound faith and routine as a refuge from the damage the war did to her brother and parents.
Jacob is initially reluctant to see his sister. Since returning home he lives as a recluse, hiding his face behind the door when she first knocks to see him. “Can I hug you?” she asks nervously. He allows it, but then swiftly rejects her offer to hang out for longer. In the main house, he can be often be heard beating on a drum set. Colleen becomes determined to help her brother heal in what limited ways she can. Her solution? Bringing back her high school goth look: dying her hair, whipping out her neglected black lipstick and donning her old wardrobe.
That effort, and the sibling bond between Colleen and Jacob, is at the core of the movie. She’s not retreating back into her high school days as much as she’s attempting to stir her brother out of hiding by giving him a glimpse at the past. However, Colleen ends up bridging the gap between her old life and her new one, finding herself somewhere in the middle. This becomes clear when she finally gets Jacob to leave the house and go for a walk, something their parents and his fiance haven’t been able to do. It’s a beautiful moment, the two of them walking through the woods bathed in fog, and it seems like the first time either of them have been comfortable in a long time. Their conversation is interrupted by a young boy walking alone. He comes upon the two of them — her with her neon pink hair and ebony lips, him with his war-ravaged face partially covered by sunglasses — and asks “Are you monsters?”
“Yeah, we’re monsters,” Jacob replies.
That’s what family’s for, right? To be the “we” in “we’re monsters” so you don’t have to be the only one. Colleen understands this. The goth makeover, chugging beer, lip syncing to GWAR while throttling a baby doll and smearing Jell-O on her face; it’s part of her higher calling, one that reunites her brother with the outside world and the rest of the family. It culminates in a hallucinatory Halloween gathering that ends with a drugged-out car chase. Here, Clark inserts a burst of surreal flourishes into his already anxious world. It’s the perfect climax to this astonishing movie, a touching, twisted family drama told against America’s uneasy political landscape.