Zach Clark’s Little Sister is set in the tumultuous autumn of 2008, predominantly in Asheville, North Carolina, when America suspected that it might be on the verge of undergoing a controlled revolution. The presidential election looms over the film’s atmosphere, hope over Barack Obama’s ascension mixed with the cultural malaise fostered by George W. Bush’s legacy of criminal war, failing economy, and infrastructural deregulation. But in 2008, American liberals thought their culture might be swinging more permanently to the left, as they often do. This optimism is embedded contextually within Clark’s setting, as North Carolina is a red state that went to Obama in 2008, choosing a Democrat for president for the first time since Jimmy Carter.
The qualified hope of 2008 feels so far away in 2017 that Little Sister now has the tenor of a ghost story, the political convictions of the characters contrasting with a masterfully pregnant mood of unease. It’s hard, now, not to think of the election of 2008 as a fleeting daydream. Clark sees his characters through a lens of suspicious yet compassionate scrutiny: Liberals in Little Sister speak of the upcoming presidential debate with foolish certainty of their causes as total solutions to their problems. Yet Clark’s skepticism also cuts deeper than issues of right and left, as he recognizes political discourse as merely one of many textures of day-to-day quotidian.
Little Sister captures the feel of 2008 without making a big deal of itself as a period piece. Symbols and place markers populate a story of a family navigating a variety of crises. Throughout the film, there are bumper stickers and signs promoting Obama and Biden, as well as snatches of interviews decrying the war in Iraq and the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weaponry. In a family’s home, a landline often rings and is rarely answered, ratcheting up free-associative tension. Early in the narrative, we see a bit of performance art in Brooklyn, as dancers reenact the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, with recordings of Bush emphasizing his macho entitlement. What we glimpse of this show is self-congratulatory yet also eerily reflective of American ennui. Watching the performance from the sidelines is the film’s protagonist, Colleen (Addison Timlin), a young woman studying to be a nun in New York, though she returns to Asheville for a week to visit her family.
Little Sister suggests a hallucinatory blend of a John Hughes film and the kind of “coming home” protest film that was fashionable in the wake of the Vietnam War, with a thread of satiric melancholia that belongs distinctively to Clark, one of the most ferociously empathetic and promising of young American directors. The filmmaker and his exceptional cast take a medley of conceits and inform them with beautiful, tremulous intensity—refusing to resort to the sort of judgment or ridicule that has become all too familiar of contemporary films as well as, of course, politics.
Colleen’s family has been imagined as a scaled representation of several issues relevant to America in 2008. Most pointedly, there’s Colleen’s older brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), a veteran who was horribly disfigured during the war in Iraq. Jacob now stews in the family’s guest house, banging away at his drums, unable to reconnect with a world that congratulates itself for viewing him as a hero, offering him hollow praise in place of connection. His skin burned, his discolored eyes constantly obscured by sunglasses, Jacob suggests a flesh-colored version of Claude Rains’s invisible man—an association that’s indirectly confirmed when a child happens upon Jacob and Colleen in the woods and asks if they’re “monsters.” Jacob, with poignant certainty, answers yes. (Little Sister isn’t a horror film, but its quasi-surreal atmosphere and sense of alienation are explicitly informed by the genre.)
The feeling of loss and atrocity suffered by this country in the wake of the most recent war in Iraq and the most recent economic depression are also suggested by a suicide attempted by Jacob and Colleen’s mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), a few years before the film’s narrative commences. Though Clark is too subtle to spell such things out, it’s evident that Joani suffers from guilt, from truthfully feeling as if she drove her children to seek extreme escapes from the house, which have come to warp both Jacob and Colleen.
Colleen’s solace in religion, as implied by an early scene in which she falls asleep in church, seems partially feigned as a way of seeking refuge from chaos, yet she’s also, unexpectedly, desperate to measure up to her faith—a real and very human contradiction to which many American films condescend or altogether fail to understand. Colleen was once a “goth chick,” and her childhood room still has an upside-down crucifix hanging on the wall, as a signifier of an old quest for definition and containment. In an extraordinary scene, Colleen reembraces her Goth roots, dying her hair pink and staging a show for Jacob that’s set to Gwar’s “Have You Seen Me?” Colleen dares to treat her brother as a human being rather than as a victim, hero, or political symbol, discarding the pieties of religion for the exhilarating abandon of pop culture, but Clark understands that this distinction isn’t so easy. Rapture, whether it comes from formal faith or pop, is rapture.
Throughout Little Sister, Clark exhibits a tactile understanding of the webbed intersections existing between politics, religion, art, and the various existential contradictions of our emotional latticework. The film is so supple and mysterious, so richly imagined on a formal level, that many audiences will be driven to attach a definitive political “meaning” to it, especially interpreting it, as I somewhat have, as a harbinger of the doom nested within hope in America. (Conservatives could also hold this film up as Exhibit A in support of liberal tunnel vision.) Yet, these platitudes do Little Sister a disservice. Like most great art, the film is irreducible, suggesting a sculptural mirror reflecting not one social element, but many simultaneously and irreconcilably.
Little Sister's image boasts deep, soft, earthy hues that suggest a fantasy or fairy-tale realm, particularly in sequences set in the woods. Splashes of color, such as Colleen's pink hair, are vibrantly rendered and counterpoint this autumnal tapestry. Facial close-ups are well-detailed, with attention paid to skin texture as well as the grittiness of the image's foreground, which contrasts with the smoothness of the background. There are two soundtracks, a 5.1 and 2.0 mix, and both balance sharp, crisp tonalities (drums, phones) with the richer, lower registers of the score and the diegetic rustlings of the characters. This is an attractive, attentive presentation.
A generic and highly skippable interview with writer-director Zach Clark and actor Ally Sheedy, conducted by Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, covers some of the usual talking points of film production. (Never mind that Travers has a bad habit of interrupting his subjects.) There's also a 12-minute sampling of Clark's first film, Rock & Roll Eulogy, which mostly inspires one to wonder why the entire film hadn't been included. The deleted and extended scenes are merely transitional filler, needlessly complemented by the home videos and TV advertisement seen on screen in Little Sister. The theatrical trailer rounds out a negligible supplements package.
A politically and emotionally evocative cult classic in the making receives a beautiful transfer courtesy of Kino Lorber.