“When you were growing up,” Colleen Lunsford’s mom says, “your dad and I used to think you’d become a lesbian satanist.” Instead, after finishing high school, Colleen ran away from her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, to relocate to Brooklyn — not to become a wiseass city slicker or to lose herself in drugs and rock ’n’ roll (nothing could corrupt her, she was already a Goth teenager), but to become something even more radically different: a nun. And at the start of Zach Clark’s new movie, Little Sister, Colleen (Addison Timlin) is on the verge of taking her vows and has largely forgotten home.
Little Sister, an enjoyably different indie film that premiered at South by Southwest this year and gets a limited release on October 14, is about what happens when Colleen is beckoned back to North Carolina after a few years away. A lot has happened in the interim. Her brother Jacob has returned from the hospital after a stint in Iraq, his face burned beyond recognition, and now refuses to leave the house or answer calls from CNN. Her mom, Joani (Ally Sheedy), now smokes a lot of pot with her dad — to cope, but more so just to live. Her future sister-in-law, who lives with the family and feels sexually rejected by the shy, injured Jacob, satisfies her need for affection as a camgirl for anonymous dudes online.
Add to that a few hothouse personalities and you have a lot of quirk. As someone generally allergic to indie foibles, I should be wheezing at the mere thought of this movie. You almost lose me at Ex-Goth Nun, or Ex-Goth Brooklynite — not because there’s nothing potentially hilarious or revealing within, but because so many directors would think the work is done once the character’s flaws or idiosyncrasies have been rendered just adorbs enough.
But Clark, who cowrote Little Sister with the actress Melodie Sisk, remembers that what matters isn’t merely the idiosyncratic details and fits of oddball behavior, but the psychological and contextual complexities that have the potential to open up in the movie. It’s what distinguishes Little Sister from the dozens of other indie dramedies of its kind, stories about likably weird kooks that populate TV, theaters, and the VOD market each year. It in fact has almost every hallmark of the genre: a road trip, a drug trip, a painful family reconciliation, a Brat Pack–era star as someone’s parent, the dreaded pink-haired pixie girl. But the details gesture toward a broader world: The lesson of it all is in the conflict between who these people are and the world they live in. They’re at the fringe, but not; out of place, but also — whether burned from war, or clinically depressed — plain and essential parts of what our country is now.
Or, at least — then. The movie is set in October 2008, eight years ago, as the presidential debates are raging on television and the future black president is selling us all on a platform of hope and change. Little Sister tiptoes alongside big questions about the George W. Bush era in order to raise more questions about what comes next. “Bet you thank your lucky stars for Obama,” a woman at the pharmacy says to Jacob, after seeing his charred face on one of his first excursions into town since getting back. “People wanna vote for change,” says one of Colleen’s fellow social outcasts from childhood, now a radical animal rights activist. “But they don’t wanna do the changing.”
The movie doesn’t amount to a critique of the oncoming Obama era, but releasing it now does tinge people’s jittery excitement over the Illinois senator with irony. The movie gets to focus on something harder to capture than blatant critique: how the weirdness of an era fraught with conflict, whether political or familial, is exacerbated when those conflicts come home. It’d be strange enough for a young nun to dye her hair pink, like she did as a teenage Goth, and wear eyeliner and powder her face to help convince her brother, a faceless war veteran, to come out of the house by looking weird. But the Obama-Biden stickers looming nearby as she does it, potentially signifying false hope, up the ante on the moment’s uneasiness.
Clark doesn’t shoot the movie with a particularly obvious or unique flair, which might be the secret to what makes it work. It looks and feels like other indie dramedies, but its subtle attention to the details of how people thought and felt about the election — how even greetings became occasions to wax hopeful about Obama — makes the impact of its familiar emotional beats conjure a mood. In other movies, those beats can come off as fabricated strangeness. Little Sister is an indie family drama about change and reconciliation, but it’s instilled with a poignant regard for the moment, too — with a sense that in 2008, change and reconciliation still seemed possible for men like Jacob, whose heartfelt wedding caps off the film. Compare that to the movie you might make about our current fractured moment. It’d be cynical, more fraught. It’d have to forget times like this.