Little Sister star Addison Timlin is not an intimidating physical presence. In fact, standing next to her hulking co-star Keith Poulson, who plays her older brother, she seems like a little girl dressed in an oversized cardigan and button-up denim shirt. That image fits her character, Colleen, an ex-Goth in her early 20s who ran away from home to become a nun and has now returned to confront the dysfunction that made her flee in the first place. It fits the movie, too, a slight, sweetly cynical indie dramedy about family and belonging and the ways we cope with life’s disappointments.
As the opening quote from Marilyn Manson flashes onto the screen, one might expect Little Sister to lean a little too heavily on the quirky side of things. And director Zach Clark’s recurring trick of cutting in VHS-style home-video and news clips throughout occasionally does come across as precious. (The film is set very specifically in October 2008.) But overall, Clark’s eye for detail is an asset—Colleen turning the upside-down cross on the wall in her childhood bedroom right-side up, for example, or her brother Jacob (Poulson), whose face was horribly burned during his tour of duty in Iraq, escaping reality in Stephen King novels and horror movies. In this family, weird is the norm—Colleen’s parents struggle far more with her conversion to Christianity than her pink hair and love of extreme music—and reconciling that with judgmental stares from the outside world is the struggle.
Clark, who made the yuletide black comedy White Reindeer, deals with these struggles sympathetically, even with characters who are difficult to love. Chief among these is family matriarch Joani (Ally Sheedy), a bitter, spiteful woman who drowns her fears that she’s wasted her life in endless glasses of wine, prescription drugs, and her hidden pot stash. Casting Sheedy in a grown-up version of her Breakfast Club “basket case” character is one of Clark’s many subtle winks to the audience, and Sheedy turns in a raw performance that’s sometimes painful to watch, her cheerful smile a flimsy Band-Aid on top of some deep wounds. (Also playfully cast: scream queen Barbara Crampton as the saintly Mother Superior of Colleen’s Brooklyn convent, and Dan In Real Life director Peter Hedges as pothead dad Bill.)
Even with Timlin’s character forming a consistent core, Little Sister tries to weave a few too many thematic threads into its minimalist storyline. (The repeated references to Obama and the presidential election, for example, feel a bit superfluous.) This is a film that’s short on plot and long on oddball personalities, and if a character appears well-adjusted, well, we just don’t know them well enough yet. But in scenes like the one where Colleen tries to cheer up her brother by performing an interpretive dance involving baby dolls full of gummy worms to the tune of GWAR’s “Have You Seen Me?,” the sentiment feels earnest, and not quirk for quirk’s sale. After all, who among us is really “normal”?