Despite its roots in the American politics of 2008, Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” remains pertinent to the current American political scene. This isn’t to say that in twenty years if the American political landscape were vastly different “Little Sister” would no longer be a good film but that there are certain themes the film grapples with resulting from that time that are still important today, and that I believe can continue to be important later on in time. What I’m referring to here is the sense of frustration felt by American citizens resulting from George W. Bush’s administration. The promise of not only a new president who stood for everything against Bush, but the first American Black president—Barack Obama—brought about a sense of optimism and “Little Sister” is reflective of that. Specifically, the film deals with the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, not on a nationwide level, but a micro-one: the effects of the war on a family whose son is a returning solider.
Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin) is a young nun who hasn’t spoken to her family in three years. One day, she receives an e-mail from her mother detailing her brother’s return home from the war. This in turn prompts Colleen to take a short break before her final rites and come back home. There, she finds her room still unchanged. In stark contrast to her current attitude, before she became a nun, Colleen was a Goth. Her room is adorned with satanic imagery and other Goth stylings, such as an upside-down cross and Marilyn Manson poster.
Despite her room being frozen in time, however, Colleen finds her family to have vastly changed. Her parents are addicted to marijuana, her mother is now taking medicine for an undisclosed mental illness, and the crux of the film’s story and this review’s analysis, her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), was horribly disfigured in the war.
Jacob spends all his time concealed in his bedroom, playing the drums or watching pornography. He refuses to spend time with Colleen out of fear of going outside and dealing with the social stigma of being disfigured and thus made an outcast. Colleen finds a remedy for Jacob’s introversion; she returns to being a Goth by way of dying her hair and wearing the appropriate dark make-up. The idea here is that they’ll both appear as “freaks” leading to a sense of solidarity, and it works. Jacob is able to leave his room and start on the path of returning to a normal life.
Being from a small town, word spreads fast of Jacob’s disfigurement, and he finds himself thrust with the title of “hero.” That mantle of hero creates a sense of discomfort for Jake, because as Clarke shows through the relationships, people don’t seem to understand Jake and there are several examples of this present throughout the film.
In one scene, Jacob’s girlfriend Tricia (Kristin Slaysman) attempts to woo him into bed by way of sexy lingerie. Jacob expresses his gratitude for her attempts to return their relationship back to normal but is ultimately unable to bring himself to have sex with her. Tricia doesn’t give up there; she insists on trying, and so she eggs Jacob to take off his sunglasses and when he doesn’t, she forcibly removes them before deciding that he was right. Her noble attempt is stopped there.
In another scene mentioned earlier, Colleen attempts to socialize with Jake upon returning home. This too, he refuses and Colleen begins to cry. Not only because she hasn’t seen her brother in so long, but because she can see that Jacob is suffering and is unable to help him. Consequently, it is through the straining of Jacob’s relationships that Clark is showing the smaller, more personal adverse effects resulting from the Iraq War.
What is exactly different, however, when Colleen visits Jacob dressed in Goth make-up that makes him decide to begin going out? Similarly, in another scene, Jacob is flirted with by one of Colleen’s friends, Emily (Molly Plunk) and he reciprocates her romantic advances. She too removes his sunglasses before leaning in for a kiss. I think what makes these two scenes different is that the characters—Colleen and her friend—are meeting Jacob on his own terms. That is to say, rather than forcibly entering his life, they are attempting to understand him through his own lens.
Ironically, Colleen does barge into Jacob’s room when she dons her Goth attire. But perhaps what prevents Jacob from kicking her out is Colleen’s display of solidarity. She’s not only going against her current beliefs as a nun—evidenced by both her return to Goth styling and defiance against the head nun—but she’s also willing to place herself in public spaces where ridicule might be eminent. During one walk through the forest, Colleen and Jacob believe themselves to be alone, but they’re stumbled upon buy a young boy. The boy questions them: “Are you monsters,” to which Jacob responds in a deadpan, “Yes.”
This sense of solidarity continues with Colleen’s friend, Emily. The trio throw a party for themselves, and while Colleen is away, Emily and Jacob bond. She asks Jacob how his family is doing before opening up about herself—revealing a crucial detail regarding her backstory. In essence, Emily makes herself vulnerable by opening up to Jacob, thus allowing him to reciprocate.
Going back to the ideas of “Little Sister” as a modern political film, it is the character of Emily that prompted this analysis. Like Colleen, Emily is also a Goth. Unlike Colleen who pursued a life of religion, however, Emily pursued one of activism and revolution. Emily shows Colleen of a video of herself and other activists, breaking into an abusive farm and freeing the chickens. She tells Colleen:
“You know the government considers us terrorists. You know what a terrorist is? Somebody who actually does something. People want to vote for change, but they don’t actually want to do the changing. I worked for PETA, I went to the marches, nothing happened. When I started doing this stuff then I could feel something happening, I could feel the difference we were making…”
On Emily’s part, there’s a distrust with the government, and a frustration with the American people. She stands in direct opposition to the government’s definition of what a terrorist is and that places Colleen in an uncomfortable situation; Colleen’s brother after all, went to Iraq to fight those terrorists and was irreparably damaged by them. Is Jacob really a hero? Were the terrorists right? I don’t think Clarke necessarily answers these questions but it’s not a cop-out. Rather, it’s a real portrait of the divisive ideologies of the time.
Continuing on, being set in 2008, Emily’s frustration with the state of activism, and the lack of action becomes prophetic of a movement such as Occupy Wall Street, which sought a revolution yet lacked any clear thought as to how to achieve its goal. Once again, Clarke is presenting different ideas of the time. Whereas Colleen’s parents are suffice to vote for Barack Obama, someone like Emily seeks a more direct method for change.
But for all its seriousness and political probing, I would be remiss to not talk about how funny “Little Sister” is. Clark inflects the comedy of the film with a rapid rhythm brought about by the soundtrack’s furious drum score. That comedy is what helps to give “Little Sister” so much heart because of how moving it is. It’s a touching, earnest story about a sister reconnecting with her brother and helping him overcome his own internal demons.