SXSW Review: LITTLE SISTER

Zach Clark's WHITE REINDEER follow-up mines comedy from sadness and solidifies the writer/director as one of America's most unique cinematic voices.

Zach Clark makes the best holiday films. His White Reindeer -- a hilariously melancholy examination of grief during Christmastime -- is one of the best movies of the last five years. Meticulously designed, disarmingly intimate and filled with flashes of thoughtful humor, it's a piece of tiny, personal filmmaking so thoroughly realized that you cannot wait to see what the writer/director has up his sleeve next. Thankfully, Clark's follow-up -- the Halloween set Little Sister -- is another absolute triumph, owning the same dejected comedy that made Reindeer such a treat.

Little Sister begins with a quote from Marilyn Manson that could double as Clark’s seasonal stories' guiding mantra. "Fail to see the tragic? Turn it into magic!" The Gothic yellow font shouts before Clark launches into the account of Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin), an understudy at a Brooklyn nunnery run by a rather generous but blunt Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton). Upon receiving an email from her mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), announcing that Colleen's brother has arrived home, this sheepish lamb of God borrows the Reverend Mother's car and heads back to Asheville, Carolina, where her childhood goth bedroom and reminders of GWAR concerts await.

Set in 2008 -- on the eve of President Obama's inauguration -- "change" is the major thematic current that charges Clark's tale of reconciliation and forgiveness. It's quite clear from the moment Colleen adjusts the upside down cross that hangs over her vacant teenage bed that she is no longer the face painted outcast who loved fake baby's blood and chugging guitars. Or is she? As she hears her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) pound on double bass drums in the guest room, hiding away his freshly disfigured face in a sea of noise (he was released from a Veteran's hospital after surviving a landmine explosion in Iraq), Clark reminds us that the ghosts of who we were continue to act as calming entities in our most trying times.

It'd be easy to read the constant insertion of Obama's classic campaign speeches as cynical hindsight, but instead it's a notice that we are always optimistically battling to better ourselves in the face of stagnation. When a pharmacy employee says to Jacob that she bets he "thanks his lucky stars for Obama", it’s hilarious and heartbreaking. Clinging to a political candidate (or religion, in Colleen's case) is not a valid substitute for taking personal responsibility for growth. Yet the two also don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can look to one in order to accent the other.

“It took God six days to create the universe," Reverend Mother says to Colleen before her trip, "you should be able to get your act together in five.” If there's a force of nature opposing the young nun's emotional righting, it's the righteous anger of Sheedy's Joani. Smoking weed, popping pills and hiding scars on her wrists, Joani constantly complains about never being "good enough" as a mother, all while her ineffectual husband (Peter Hedges) dutifully attempts to console her while begging Colleen to comply with her mother's pithy demands. Outside of putting in a lion’s roar of a performance, Sheedy's casting feels like a sly visual reference to her Breakfast Club past. This is Alison Reynolds, heavily medicated without feeling any sort of comforting love, having spawned her own goth offspring and wistfully admitting she thought Colleen would become a "lesbian Satanist" instead of a dutiful nun. It's an absolute genius mixture of performance and linkage to cinematic lineage that works wonders in the movie’s favor.

No matter how great her surrounding co-stars are, Little Sister is still very much Timlin's picture. She's a lizard, shedding the still skin of her current form until she and Jacob are bonding over the metal music that once united them during their most alienated, disaffected years (an interpretive dance set to GWAR's "Have You Seen Me?" is flat out brilliant). Much how Anna Margaret Hollyman became the coked out nucleus of White Reindeer's Yuletide universe, Timlin allows the rest of these battered planets to revolve around her while altering her own gravitational pull in order to draw them closer. Hers is a performance of dynamite understatement, exuding big emotions with seemingly little effort. Like the thundering stage gods Colleen idolized as an adolescent, Timlin is an absolute rock star in her own way.

Zach Clark is quickly becoming one of America's most distinct cinematic voices. Outside of his superlative work with actors, his steady attention to details that define these characters is absolutely stunning. When the family finally comes together in order to throw their own drug fueled Halloween party (Clark loves allowing his characters to ingest), every costume compliments the personality of its wearer (just look who gets to play the mummy). When paired with his golden ear for song placement and the somewhat washed out digital aesthetic (though DP Daryl Pittman captures the fall hues of North Carolina in all their vibrancy), Clark's vision becomes unified in a way so few of his current peers can muster. He's creating pop art with a haggard soul, steadily mining truth and comedy from the depths of despair.

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