Halloween is almost upon us. For some this means dressing up in scary costumes, watching scary movies, or just getting wasted because the day ends in a ‘y.’
Halloween is not often viewed as a family holiday, though.
Coming home for the holidays is a film genre of its own. Mostly mawkish, sometimes heartfelt, more often than not, middling. Zack Clark’s Little Sister is the Halloween “home for the holidays” movie for those of you who enjoy gathering as a family to watch Herschell Gordon Lewis films.
Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin), a novitiate in a New York City convent, is about to take her first vows. Colleen seems absent, though. She hasn’t fully engaged in the world around her. She swings from going to a Bushwick-style avant-garde show about 9/11 and politely refusing to snort cocaine with the artists there, to reading the Bible to an elderly terminal patient. In the next take, we see she has fallen asleep in the middle of playing the organ at services. The Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton) has to rouse her.
Questions arise as to if Colleen is ready to take her vows. Then, Colleen gets an email from her mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), saying Colleen’s brother, Jacob (Keith Paulson) is finally home from the hospital. Colleen has a heart to heart with her Reverend Mother and with her car, and a mandate of “only five days,” she’s off to Ashford, NC.
Mostly the movie deals with Colleen’s relationship with her family and herself. Joani is the type of Mother you typically see in indie films. Always medicated and constantly trying for the ultimate high while screaming that her kids don’t love her. Sheedy, to her credit, takes this role and manages to flesh Joani out to a real person. To say Joani resembles Sheedy’s character, Allison Reynolds from The Breakfast Club as an adult would not be a stretch.
Jacob, Colleen’s brother is an Iraq war hero who’s survived an IED explosion. He returns home with severe burns, his face unrecognizable. Clark wisely chooses only to allow us rare glimpses of Jacob before the war. We’re forced to see Jacob as he is now and not as he was.
Colleen is the fulcrum of the story. Her arrival, her presence, is the reason for the movie. Timlin more than rises to the task. There’s a reserved composure to her performance that holds the movie together. She plays Colleen as a young woman who truly believes in her devotion to Christ. The fact Colleen used to be a Goth teen is never played for laughs but serves as a contrast to illustrate how we change as we grow older.
Clark manages to sell us on the idea of a family who treats Halloween like Christmas without making them seem cartoonish or flippant. Little Sister does an excellent job of showing you how parents like Joani and Bill (Peter Hedges) could raise a daughter who becomes a nun. Colleen says as much herself, when in an emotionally charged conversation with Joani about her parenting, declares how much she needed structure, and that the Church has given it to her.
He’s not afraid of quiet conversations, for as much as shrooms, marijuana cupcakes, strippers, and horror movies feature, one of the biggest triumphs of the film is the cathartic release of mother and daughter. Colleen has hit her limit, and Joani finally reaches out to level with her. Charmingly, she asks if Colleen will ever miss sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Colleen calmly responds she can’t see herself ever doing that with anyone, and as Joani falteringly, tearfully explains that there’s never an “aha! I got this!” moment in life, the two reach a common ground of compassion and understanding. Of course, this is a Clark film, so the scene follows with a quick coda of Colleen asking if being high is “always this much fun.”
When Little Sister allows Colleen to be the center of her story, when it allows her to observe and interact with those around her, it’s an excellent movie. Where the film begins to stumble is when it veers away from Colleen, to give us another character’s point of view. The movie seems to do this out of obligation rather than out of a desire to tell a story.
Zack Clark clearly understands his characters and what he wants to do with them. The struggle seems to be a crisis of confidence and finding a clear narrative voice. His greatest strength appears to be getting great performances from his actors. Drawing such performances is not a mean feat considering directors capable of directing actors are becoming increasingly rare, it seems.
A struggle to find one’s voice is nothing to be ashamed of. Some directors spend their entire careers trying to find the balance between a strong voice and service to the story. From Nicholas Ray to John Carpenter; Film History is littered with directors trying to find that balance. There’s the key. A balance. Little Sister is an admirable film with much to recommend it, it just stumbles from time.