Zach Clark’s Little Sister follows Colleen (Addison Timlin), a twentysomething Brooklyn-based nun who returns to her childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina to reconnect with her pot-smoking, progressive parents and her brother, a severely disfigured Iraq War veteran who’s been living as a recluse since returning home. From an Off-Off-Broadway anti-war dance-theater show in Brooklyn to the Obama-obsessed boomers in Asheville, Clark authentically captures the politically charged ambiance of the lives of white middle-class liberals just prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, but the characters he places in this deftly realized setting lack a comparable specificity. It’s never clear if the audience is meant to take these aimless millennials and self-righteous baby boomers seriously.
The film’s characters project their anxieties rather than embody them. Colleen is a spineless church mouse who sleepwalks through her life without ever fully engaging in anything or anyone around her, with the exception of her almost equally catatonic brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), and her childhood friend, Emily (Molly Plunk). Colleen and Jacob, around whose relationship the plot pivots, are passive, acted upon by their environment without offering much in the way of resistance or even participation, though their characterization might reflect Clark’s vision of millennials as apathetic spectators of the world around them; they don’t care enough about their lives for their actions to have any consequences. Like the other personas, Colleen and Jacob comes off as a thesis waiting to be developed, rather than as fleshed out characters with their own interior lives and motivations.
Little Sister’s attempts at humor largely emanate from Colleen and Jacob’s smug sense of superiority to the people around them. Their sarcastic jokes are the defense mechanism of juvenile narcissists, and Clark justifies such behavior by showing Colleen and Jacob’s parents’ political engagement to be just as futile as the children’s lack thereof. Other attempts at humor stem from the story’s Halloween setting. The filmmaker exploits Jacob’s disfigurement to set up a series of repetitive monster jokes before eventually dismissing the war vet’s trauma as something that was never really a problem in the first place. In using Jacob’s disability and PTSD as fodder for its twee comedy, the film reveals the superficiality of its concerns.
Colleen and Jacob may be one-note parodies of disaffected millennials, but their mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), is meant to be the film’s true monster, a grotesque caricature of white liberal self-satisfaction. Perpetually high from her almost unabated consumption of pot and prescription drugs, Joani gives the uptight Colleen pot brownies without warning her of their contents and passive-aggressively mocks her decision to become a nun. Joani seems to view her daughter’s vocation as a condemnation of her own progressive values. Joani and the film’s other likeminded boomers, who live in a community populated solely by people who think and look exactly like them, can’t make sense of the apathy and superficially conservative exterior of their children’s’ lives. Despite the simplicity with which Clark depicts the younger generation, his sympathies are with them: Colleen might not vocalize her political views, but unlike her parents, she embodies her values by living for others in a multiethnic community of diverse opinions and outlooks.
Little Sister might have worked as a pinpoint satire of the generational gap between baby boomers and their offspring, but its refusal to engage with the political and social questions it raises prevents the film from ever rising above the sentimental. This is especially evident in Colleen’s brief regression to her teen goth self, which Clark exploits for its nostalgic kitsch value in lieu of exploring it as a sincere expression of the feeling of alienation that often accompanies the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As the Marilyn Manson quote at the film’s start and the passing reference to Gwar indicate, Clark is content to stay on the surface of things. The film’s attempt at political insight and portrayal of social malaise are meant to give it the illusion of depth, but they barely conceal what at its core is an exploitation melodrama.