Schmaltz and the dysfunctional family too often go hand in hand on the screen. An estranged member makes a homecoming to find things not quite right, tension filling the air of the house they grew up in, but a few good cries later (and probably after the death of a kooky grandparent lacking a verbal filter or something), a rickety catharsis is reached and much hugs are had.
Written and directed by Zach Clark, “Little Sister,” an indie comedy-drama released to on-demand and streaming services last week, takes this familiar story and fills it with quirks and strangeness, yet manages to never ratchet the sympathy shown for its characters too far into mushiness.
It’s also one of the few family dramas to make prominent use of the phrase “suckle my bloated love knuckle” thanks to a lip-synced performance of 1992 GWAR standard “Have You Seen Me?,” so props for that as well.
Set during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Colleen (Addison Timlin), the sibling making the pilgrimage, is an ex-goth now training to be a nun and closing in on her first vows in Brooklyn while avoiding phone calls and emails from her family back in North Carolina. Word that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has returned home from Iraq after being badly burned during fighting spurs her to confront in person the dysfunction that first drove her to life in the convent.
Arriving back home in Asheville, Colleen’s childhood bedroom is as she left it — everything painted black or holding a skull motif, Christian Death album in the changer, crucifix inverted on the wall over her bed. Jacob, who has taken up residence in the guest house with bed sheets strung up in all the windows, is for the first third of the film a presence mostly felt through bursts of violent drumming that echoes through the walls at different times of the day.
Though his presence looms in the background, Jacob’s not the source of major unease in the household. Family matriarch Joanie (Ally Sheedy of “The Breakfast Club” fame) is a ball of angst always teetering on the edge of an outburst, and her wine, pill and weed-fueled behavior lend hints at the past blowup that sent Colleen off to the convent in the first place, though the exact circumstances aren’t clearly hashed out (and don’t really need to be).
“Little Sister” has a surprisingly deft handling of religion, seeing as the film’s goth-and-metal undertones could easily see it devolving into common mockery. Colleen’s family is more understatedly freaked out now that she’s sporting a cardigan and a cross instead of black lipstick and corpse paint.
The trip home doesn’t serve as either a grand realization of badassery cast aside or a sappy acceptance of a divine calling. Instead, it becomes a quiet — and more human — confrontation and reconciliation with a past self and a past life.
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