Zach Clark has directed a sad comedy about a dysfunctional family for what he calls “the little goth girl in all of us.” Thanks, we needed it. In Little Sister, a skillful blend of humor and heartbreak (minus sappy sentiment), Clark takes us to places and head spaces we don’t see coming. The wonderful Addison Timlin shines as Colleen Lunsford, the little goth girl who is now a novitiate at a New York convent. She’s just short of taking her final vows, though Mother Superior (Barbara Crampton) has her doubts. Then Colleen gets an e-mail from her manic-depressive mother (an award-caliber Ally Sheedy) in Asheville, North Carolina: Her brother, Jacob (a vivid Keith Poulson), wounded in the Iraq war, has returned with his face horrifically disfigured from a landmine explosion.
So, for the first time in three years, Colleen comes home for a visit, five days tops, on orders from the reverend mother. Jacob sticks to the guesthouse, madly drumming to express his rage and mostly ignoring his fiancee (Kristin Slaysman). Mom and dad (a superb Peter Hedges), both potheads, stage a homecoming out of John Waters by way of John Hughes. In The Breakfast Club, Sheedy played an iconic high-school basket case who announced, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” This matriarch is the living proof. When she’s not attempting suicide, the woman sees herself as the axis on which the world revolves. “Dad and I thought you’d become a lesbian Satanist,” she tells Colleen, with bitter regret that her little girl chose, you know, God instead.
Little Sister is Clark’s fifth feature film. If he’s new to you, please catch up with 2013’s White Reindeer, a Christmas film that begins with murder and bloodshed (it’s a holiday perennial at my house). Though the writer-director uses the names of his own family members here, his script is only abstractly autobiographical. Clark sets the film in 2008, an election year when Obama’s hopey-changey thing was percolating in the air. For the Lunsfords, not so much. To reconnect with Jacob and her past, Colleen dyes her hair, paints her face, dismembers a doll and lip-syncs to Gwar’s “Have You Seen Me.” What’s not to love?
Clark takes the story he concocted with producer Melodie Sisk down dark alleys, but Little Sister is never cynical or inhumane. Colleen’s vocation is as solid as her vow of chastity. In one powerful scene, she reacts to her mother’s meltdown (it’s a Sheedy tour de force) with a stillness that reflects not spite, but hard-won compassion. Clark is a talent to watch. He’s made a transfixing film about a family that looks touchingly and unnervingly like yours and mine.