Little Sister (2016)

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threehalfstar

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.

-Brandon Ledet

American Mary (2012)

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twostar

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Maybe the reason that the late 90s, early 00s nu metal Hot Topic mall goth aesthetic hasn’t yet returned in any significant, nostalgic way is that it never died a proper death. Not that I’d recommend the experience, but if you tuned in to a modern rock radio station, you’ll notice that not much has changed in the last fifteen years. A couple outliers like Tame Impala & The Black Keys aside, a lot of mainstream hard rock sounds like the kind of dreck I would’ve greedily eaten up in my KoЯn/Slipknot/Limp Bizkit-loving days as a wee lad. That’s partly why the half-hearted, cheap-o slasher American Mary feels so awkwardly uncool. If it were released closer to 1999, it’d be a lot more likely to deserve a former mall goth cult following like the actually-pretty-great werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Since it was released just three years ago, however, the film feels like stale leftovers from a nu metal yesteryear. It’s not just in the shitty soundtrack either. The whole film feels like it could’ve been jointly sponsored by Hot Topic, Spencer’s, The Family Values Tour, and Ozzfest. Obviously, there’s still a market for that aesthetic, but I personally found it difficult to stomach.

The titular Mary in this nostalgia trip to a time no one misses is a young medical student who falls down the bizarre rabbit hole of performing voluntary body modification procedures thanks to a strip club named Bourbon-a-Go-Go. Unable to support herself financially while attending medical school, Mary auditions to be a stripper at Bourbon-a-Go-Go & somehow the interview devolves into her performing life-saving surgery in her fancy lingerie, a ridiculous display I suppose was meant to be titillation for surgery fetishists. It certainly didn’t deliver anything valuable in terms of gore. Shortly after this strange turn in her life, Mary is drugged & raped at a mentor surgeon’s house party (a moment that feels grotesquely out of place in what is for the most part a horror comedy) and the film then briefly combines my two all-time least favorite movie genres: the rape revenge & the torture porn. Fun. All of this nonsense eventually leads to Mary finding a second life as an unlicensed body modification surgeon who specializes in tongue splitting, teeth filing, implants, gential modification, voluntary amputation, and the like. She spends the rest of the film trying to balance this newfound vocation with the day-to-day complications of a besides-the-point budding romance & police investigation. Gore-light, gothy hijinks ensue.

To her credit, the actress who plays Mary (Katharine Isabelle, who also played Ginger in the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, appropriately enough) is mostly charming here, with her mod goth bangs & ironic, Daria Morgendorffer-style sense of emotionally-detached humor. Other female characters, including a woman who’s had more than a dozen elective procedures in order to look like her favorite cartoon character & a fetish model who wants to become as flat as a Barbie doll to sidestep sexual objectification, are equally fascinating. What doesn’t work is the grotesquely macho world that surrounds them. The film’s tendency towards a meat head nu metal aesthetic opens it up to leering lipstick lesbianism, thoroughly unsexy fellatio, sexual assault, and trashy-at-best strip teases that ruin the good vibes that a few interesting characters here or there can’t sustain on their own. American Mary desperately wants to be an ironically detached horror comedy & sometimes it works. The fact that our lovely mod goth protagonist earns the moniker “Bloody Mary” is amusing, as are other tossed-off details like an early scene where a mentor praises her surgical skills with the line, “You’re going to make a great slasher.” Most of the film is far from self-aware in this way, though, and instead drags on endlessly through macho goth nonsense sure to please every thirteen year old out there who’s still rocking studded bracelets & wallet chains, but not many others.

For the morbidly curious looking to dive into this dated aesthetic, I recommend instead checking out the somewhat-similar-in-tone Starry Eyes, in which a young actress falls into the rabbit hole of Hollywood casting couch politics. Starry Eyes is far from a horror comedy, but its earnestness earns much more interesting, bizarrely grotesque results than American Mary‘s overbearing sense of detachment. Starry Eyes has a lot of American Mary‘s nu metal posturings, but puts them to much better use, going for full-on horror instead of this half-ironic, half-brutal, fully-tepid stinker with a late 90s hangover.

-Brandon Ledet