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Little Sister

Kino // Unrated // February 7, 2017
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 10, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Many people undergo a kind of shift in their personality -- large or small -- as the years go by, and usually that comes in them abandoning their wilder, rebellious tendencies for a version of themselves that's tamer, self-aware, and, y'know, a bit more socially acceptable. Few undergo the drastic type of transformation that Colleen does in Little Sister, though, where she abandons the brightly-hued hairstyles and brashness of the alternative scene for the sanctity and restraint of the church. Such an adjustment suggests that there might be a complicated story of realization at the heart of her story, yet despite the interest that it might pose, examining the depths of her character isn't the focus of this story. Instead, Zach Clark's indie drama merely brushes against those deeper musings about what led Colleen down her unique path from goth girl to buttoned-up nun, opting instead for loosely-connected observations of how this new version of herself reconciles with her damaged and dysfunctional family.

At the beginning of Little Sister, Colleen is on the cusp of taking her vows to become a full member of her selected nun community. Due to some uncertainty and conflict with whether she absolutely wants this for her life, she decides to travel to Asheville, North Carolina, her hometown, to regather her thoughts and answer some internal questions ... as well as visit her brother (Keith Poulson), a war veteran, who was disfigured in battle. It's a place that she's avoided for quite some time, both in person and through phone calls and emails, so a little bit of surprise can be felt when she discovers the state of her family. Her brother, Jacob, whose burns cover the entirety of his face, has become highly reclusive and somewhat neglectful to his fiancée, Tricia (Kristin Slaysman); her mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), who copes with a mental illness, has resorted to recreational drugs to improve her mood. When she arrives to find her bedroom looking the same as in her goth-girl days and her family in this peculiar state, Colleen slides back into her some of her old ways.

Someone returning to their hometown after a long absence and confronting who they once were, reconnecting with old friends and family members in the process, certainly isn't something new for comedic dramas, ranging from Grosse Pointe Blank's jagged humor to Garden State's bittersweet musings on guilt and depression. What sets each one apart is the distinctiveness of the characters returning home and the purpose that the storyteller holds in bringing them back, an area where Little Sister holds a lot of potential in Colleen's conflict of faith and past experiences. Instead of focusing on the mental space of the young nun, writer/director Clark broadens the scope to include the entirety of the Lunsford family, highlighting how her presence upends everyone's day-to-day. While this gives Little Sister more interactive authenticity, accentuated by Colleen's efforts to cheer up her brother and how she draws the irrational ire of her mother -- a piercing and complex role embodied by Ally Sheedy -- it also distances the audience from a deeper glimpse at who Colleen really is.

Thus, Little Sister comes across as something of a missed opportunity at examining its focal intriguing character, especially when taking Addison Timlin's reputable performance into consideration. Timlin appropriately realizes the meek, frustrated attitude of a once-free spirit now bridled and seeking worldly answers, someone whose insecurity with a controversial decision like becoming a nun can be felt both in her body language and in the impact she has on those closest to her. Her relapse from the cardigan-wearing woman of the cloth to her pink-haired self of the past creates short-lived, uncommitted windows into her reasoning, mostly emerging when she gets together with an old, somewhat rebellious friend, Emily (Molly Plunk), who proves to be a bad influence in the best of ways. Frustratingly, Little Sister instead tries to spread attention out to the full breadth of the family's issues, going into themes of post-trauma seclusion with Jacob and depressive self-medication with her mother, reaching deeper into their internal conflicts than it even goes into Colleen's.

That's the movie I was eager to see with Little Sister, one that really gets its hands dirty with moral issues and a deeper understanding of Colleen's choices, yet instead director Clark finds restrained, placid humor and reactive drama in the process of the family reconciling and moving forward. Over the course of a week, the film stumbles through arguments, conversations, and party atmospheres that nudge the characters into compromising situations, tapping into the sort of quirky under-the-radar comedy that raises eyebrows instead of generating laughs. It's the brand of humor that also relishes long shots of characters dancing weirdly, then hopes that it all works as a reflection of how they've changed over the course of the story, growing even stranger and more warped as the mother's penchant for drugs more directly impacts the course of later events. Through a mild gauntlet of sinful acts and reminders of where she came from, Colleen does reach a new liberated outlook on her life and her job, but Little Sister keeps one too distanced from those internal epiphanies to make it meaningful.

Video and Audio:

Little Sister shows up on Blu-ray from Kino in a suitable, occasionally impressive 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer. The camerawork fluctuates between semi-dim shots inside houses to both sunny and cloudy days during walks outside, which offers plenty of opportunities for the contrast to fluctuate from complex middle-ground shadows to strong, detail-focused scenes in outdoor light. A few fine details emerge in garments, clustered woodsy textures and party snacks, but robust sharpness isn't a chief concern for the general look of the film. Skin tones are appropriately warm, cool, or olive-hued depending on the lighting and temperature of the shots, while a few bursts of strong color -- notably, the bold pinkness of Colleen's hair -- stand out from the generally tan and restrained palette, appropriately strong without appearing oversaturated. The visual language of the film doesn't strike a strong chord, but Kino's Blu-ray makes certain to elevate the right elements within.

The audio for Little Sister tends to be even more nondescript than the visuals, centered on the strength of dialogue and the impact of background music throughout. Verbal clarity remains tight and discernible through this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track: while that be difficult when it comes to listening in to Colleen's brother's whispery way of speech, every bit of articulation can be heard against the well-presented stillness of the atmosphere, letting the natural heft of the voices fill their respective rooms. The most intriguing sonic elements come in the music, and not just whenever tunes fill the room. While the soundtrack choices appropriately fill the surround channels wherever necessary, it's the thumping of Jacob's drum set that creates the most intriguing sonic element in the film, allowing the distanced mid-range thump of his set to travel to different channels and test the lower-frequency balance. Little Sister sounds just fine in the areas where it needs to.

Special Features:

Numerous little extras have been included with Little Sister, from some pretty strong Deleted Scenes (4:52, 16x9 HD) that offer more insight into Colleen's insecurity with being a nun, to the standalone Home Movies (2:59, 4x3 HD) seen in the film, Colleen's father's Pro-Star Entertainment Commercial (:37, 4x3 HD), and a few excerpts from Zach Clark's student debut feature, Rock and Roll Eulogy (12:38, 16x9 HD), which offers a glimpse into a little of the director's reverse inspiration for the film. The most substantial extra, hidden away on the second page of the offerings, is a Q&A With Ally Sheedy and Zach Clark (30:55, 16x9 HD), recorded for the New York Film Critics Series and hosted by Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, a fairly standard and low-key chat about how the film ties to Clark's own family and surroundings, how Ally Sheedy got involved and embraced the script, and about some of the film's more profound scenes and intended tones. Also included is a Trailer (2:09, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Little Sister has good intentions and compelling ideas, in which a conflicted nun who was once something of a heavy-metal wild child returns to her hometown in search of confirmation of her life choices. In a way, however, the film veers away from walking that path and instead focuses upon how she reforms her relationship with her family, which tosses in heavier elements of military post-trauma and the association between drugs and depression. That creates a bit too much dramatic conflict to coexist with Colleen's personal story, which obscures and clutters the intentions of Little Sister. It's a well-performed, mildly quirky, and noble comedic drama about reconciliation and rediscovery upon returning home, but there's too much available substance here for Clark to dig deeper into what the film purports itself to be about. Certainly worth a Rental, but not much more.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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