SXSW 2016: “Little Sister” review

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“Fail to see the tragic? Turn it into magic!” This quote in a rustic yellow biblical font, courtesy of the more whimsical side of Marilyn Manson, opens director Zach Clark’s brilliant Halloween set “Little Sister.” The hour and a half that follows are both a testament to Clark’s dark comedic genius and a love letter to every viewer who has struggled with the definitive pros and cons that come with significant change.

“Little Sister” follows ex-goth girl and young nun-in-training, Colleen Lunsford (played by an understated yet powerful Addison Timlin) as she pays a visit to her estranged, and delightfully abnormal, family. Although “Little Sister” is undoubtedly Colleen’s story, the cast of characters that surrounds her never feel like supporting characters, as they each bring their own comedy and tragedy to the table.

Colleen’s brother, Jacob (played by Keith Poulson sporting heavy facial prosthetics), is a recent Iraq war veteran and the main reason for Colleen’s trip home. He deals with his near brush with death, and resulting physical disfigurement, by not dealing with it at all. Jacob locks himself in the guest house, spending days on end playing drums and avoiding contact with everyone, including his family, his devoted but emotionally exhausted fiancé, fellow veteran friends and the public who fancies him a hometown hero in the Obama era of change in 2008.

Ally Sheedy gives an endlessly amusing performance in her signature twisted-but-with-a-smile style as Joani, Colleen and Jacob’s pothead mom who is recovering from a recent self-harm “accident.” Colleen’s father, Bill (played by Peter Hedges), is the eager-to-please counterpart to his wife’s character whose mania is always just beneath the surface.

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The most intriguing moments of the film come when its characters get in touch with the people they used to be, and maybe still are. When Colleen first returns to her adolescent goth-dream bedroom, she carefully swivels the upside down cross above her bed right side up. But, her allegiance to her newfound religious ideals fades quickly as the days pass. She decides to try to shake her brother out of his reclusive state by getting fantastically gothed out and delivering a phenomenal and weirdly touching lip sync performance to GWAR’s “Have You Seen Me?” As Jacob starts to open up to his sister, he too begins to remember who he was before his traumatic experience at war and the significant disfigurement that is a constant reminder of it. Meanwhile, their mother Joani walks the fine line between a manic depressive wild card and supportive matriarch. And none of the family members are able to completely commit to change.

The story culminates in a family Halloween party before Colleen is to head back to her life as a nun. The choice of this specific holiday setting shapes and compliments the entire film, not only in aesthetic and stylistic tone but also in a beautifully metaphorical sense. You get the feeling that this family’s everyday life is Halloween-like. Although their party costumes are impressive, the everyday lives of each character greatly outshine any exaggerated masquerade. Colleen struggles to decide between nostalgic black lipstick or a newer un-ironic cross necklace. Jacob’s unchanging and inescapable new face reads as either hero or monster to outsiders. Even Joani ever intriguingly seems to be living out a grown-up version of Sheedy’s “basketcase” from “The Breakfast Club.” As we watch these characters seem painfully normal on the most freakish night of the year compared to their everyday lives, it reminds everyone watching how honestly scary our own life decisions and change can be.

Both heartwarming and heartbreaking, this story is a Halloween tale that only Clark could execute this masterfully. The characters unfold in perfect timing, the autumn North Carolina setting matches so well with Clark’s clear vision for the film and the music selection couldn’t have been better if goth-era Colleen had compiled the soundtrack herself. “Little Sister” is an undeniable triumph.

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