The Little Hours (2017)

To date, I’ve been a huge fan of all three of Jeff Baena’s features as a director. I was even an unwitting devotee going as far back as his first writer’s credit on the required taste absurdist comedy I Huckabees. Besides consistently collaborating with Aubrey Plaza, however, there’s no solid pattern to his output as an auteur. The zom-com Life After Beth & the bachelor party from Hell black comedy Joshy have a vaguely similar dedication to bleak humor in the midst of a romantic fallout, but don’t resemble each other in the slightest in terms of genre, plot, or tone. With his latest film, The Little Hours,  Baena even leaves his usual bleakness behind for an entirely different kind of dark comedy altogether. Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, The Little Hours finds Baena at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. I swear Baena improves with every picture.

Aubrey Plaza, Allison Brie, and Kate Micucci star as a trio of “tough & violent” nuns bored out of their minds in a 14th Century convent. As a period piece, the movie makes several subtly played points about how young women without proper dowries were dumped into these religious institutions when their families became irritated with their presence at home & how class determined their place in the convents once admitted. Mostly, though, the film is a nonstop bacchanal reminiscent of the second half of Ken Russell’s The Devils or a sex comedy version of The Witch. Their lives are mostly an endless routine of dutiful prayer/domestic chores being interrupted by devious experiments with getting drunk, making out, flirting with black magic, and beating a poor farmer with his own lousy turnips. Their juvenile acts of depravity & vandalism become more focused with the introduction of a deaf, mute hottie played by Dave Franco, but the movie is mostly an episodic catalog of wild, vulgar nuns’ misbehavior. This slight, but eccentric dynamic works exceptionally well thanks to the immense comedic talent of the three leads, who rarely get as much freedom to cause havoc as they do here.

Based on one isolated section of the 14th Century text The Decameron, The Little Hours more or less lives up to the diminutive modifier of its title. Brevity is healthy for a comedy, though, and although the film is obviously informed by improv experimentation, it’s sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. At a lean 90 minutes and armed with the idyllic Garden of Eden sunshine of a sexed-up European “art film” (softcore porno) of the hippy-dippy Satanic psychedelia era, The Little Hours might just be both the best traditional comedy and the best period piece I’ve seen all year. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Micucci, who is usually cast as a reserved nerd, to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates. It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet. As always, I look forward to whatever unexpected project he’ll deliver next, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard or been as visually in awe of his work as I was with this release.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Sister (2016)

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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