The Sundance-style indie drama has formed into a concrete genre all of its own, especially in the years since titles like Little Miss Sunshine & Lars and the Real Girl broke out of the festival to find mass audience success. Mixing melodrama melancholy with cathartic moments of black humor can feel a little formulaic & small in those dirt cheap indie dramedies, but every now and then one will break through to reveal something genuine & carefully considered in its approach to capturing & exploring human behavior. There’s nothing especially mind-blowing or unique about the small scale familial drama Little Sister once you look past the visual details of its ex-goth-turned-Catholic-nun protagonist; in fact, the basic structure of the film reminded me a lot of the similarly minded indie dramedy The Skeleton Twins. Instead of setting itself apart with any immediately apparent stylistic details, Little Sister excels by searching for moments of humanism & genuine empathy in its narrative beats. Every theme & story arc proves to be far kinder & less sensationalist than where I consistently feared the film might be going and Little Sister‘s warmth & familiarity ultimately proved to be its greatest storytelling, not a fault of its adherence to genre.
A young woman studying to be a nun makes a pilgrimage alone to her home town to confront unresolved issues from her past. Her pristinely preserved bedroom reveals her past life as an angsty goth teen, with all of the upside down crosses, drawers of black clothing, and leftover containers of Manic Panic hair dye that past life implies. The people she left behind are in shambles. Her mother is a suicide attempt survivor who gets by through self-medicating with massive doses of marijuana; her brother has returned from the War in Iraq with a disfigured face, resembling a low-rent version of Deadpool; her future sister in law is desperately lonely in the wake of her fiancee’s wounded ego; her only high school friend is a spoiled rich brat with the delusions of a wannabe political activist. She feels deep sympathy for every one of these broken loved ones, but as a vegetarian, straight edge virgin who’s never even tried a beer, she also stands as a constant target for peer pressure, an insistent urging to indulge in drugs, sin, and a breaking of her vows to God. This tense family reunion devolves into a sort of late-in-life coming of age story as the future nun reverts back to her goth teen ways and struggles both with her own inherent innocence in a not-so-innocent world & her family’s cyclical run-ins with hereditary chemical imbalance.
Little Sister‘s themes are heavy and its stakes can be high for individual characters but overall its conflicts are played as a delicate melancholy and any potential for dramatic shock value is sidestepped for deeply empathetic kindness & humanism. For instance, Ally Sheedy’s role as a drunken, unhinged mother who purposefully says hurtful things like, “I am a disappointment to you and you are a disappointment to me,” could easily be played as a tyrannical monster, but the film instead searches for what’s worthwhile & wounded within her and that’s what for the most part makes it special. That’s not to say that Little Sister doesn’t distinguish itself with a highly stylized aesthetic. Besides it’s basic hook as a coming of age story featuring a young goth nun, the film also gets a lot of mileage out of its 2008 temporal setting. This allows for Brooklyn hipster performance art that cruelly satirizes 9/11 and some historical positioning of the Iraqi War as a Second Vietnam, where wounded soldiers’ hero status is complicated by the futility & illegitimacy of the cause they served. I also really admired the way old camcorder footage of children playing Universal Monsters, VHS copies of movies like Carnival of Souls & The Wizard of Gore, and dinky homemade Halloween parties boosted the film’s themes of familial nostalgia & stuck-in-a-rut goth angst. Best yet, the disfigured brother’s continuous, frustrated practice on an impossibly loud drum kit provided a great tension building score that played beautifully into the way his presence & depression left his family on edge.
Mixing these specific stylistic choices with their overall sense of unexpected empathy makes Little Sister work as a series of memorable, but minor successes instead if floundering as formulaic, Sundance runoff. There’s so many ways this film could have slipped into cruelty or tedium at every turn, but it maintains its tonal balance nimbly & confidently, never settling for easy dramatic beats or quirk-for-quirk’s-sake character work. Successes like this often go unappreciated because they seem so easily manageable from the surface, but Little Sister could have very easily been a total tonal disaster. It’s honestly kind of a minor miracle that it isn’t.