If “The Sound of Music” reps the Mother of all nun-out-of-water movies, and “Ida” the Superior, then Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” is a far scrappier breed of rogue abbess. As sweetly funky and improbably pure-hearted as its young heroine, a trainee nun and erstwhile Goth making peace with her troubled North Carolina family, Clark’s fifth feature is marked by his characteristic brand of distorted realism, though a classically redemptive arc — with even a hint of spiked sentimentality — sounds a new note in his oeuvre. A shade less emotionally daring than the career high of 2013’s “White Reindeer,” this not-so-twisted “Sister” could nonetheless prove the helmer’s most audience-friendly work to date — with an added draw for Brat Packers curious to see a potent Ally Sheedy in problem-parent mode.
“Fail to see the tragic? Turn it into magic!” That “Little Sister” should begin with a title card quoting Marilyn Manson — in one of his more Pollyanna-esque moods, but Marilyn Manson all the same — is not surprising given Clark’s catholic embrace of pop ephemera in his work, though its application isn’t as ironic as one might initially presume. A woman who apparently digested a fair bit of Manson herself in her adolescent years, baby-faced Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin) has evidently worked hard to conjure grace out of despair in her life — something of a recurring theme in Clark’s work, as “White Reindeer” and “Vacation!” also scrutinized, without judgment, unorthodox responses (or non-responsiveness) to trauma and tragedy. Colleen, it would seem, has responded with a judicious compromise between asceticism and hedonism: She got herself to a nunnery, after all, but one in the heart of Brooklyn.
Clark sets his story in 2008, on the brink of President Obama’s inauguration, and thus paints an America much like his heroine: uncertainly hopeful after years of accumulated, unprocessed damage. “I bet you thank your lucky stars for Obama,” a stranger sympathetically observes to an Iraq war vet who hasn’t much of anything to be thankful for; arriving in the final months of Obama’s presidency, “Little Sister” maintains a kind of deadpan hindsight on such optimism that, again, skates finely clear of cynicism. Its political undertow may be ambiguous, though in Clark’s post-election landscape, change starts with the individual.
Quite what personal history Colleen is escaping emerges only in fragments — literally so in the pic’s opening scene, as an email from her seemingly estranged mother, Joan (Sheedy), is shown in such tight closeup that only sharp, salient phrases (“still upset”; “my accident”) are visible. Colleen’s older brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson, unrecognizable under heavy, well-executed prosthetics), has returned home from service in Iraq, severely disfigured and disaffected after a landmine accident. Though already on thin ice with her firm-but-fair Reverend Mother, who doubts the depth of her commitment to the convent, Colleen requests time out for a family reunion. It is granted, with restrictions: “It took God six days to create the universe; you should be able to get your act together in five.”
The time allowance imposes a nominal structure — wittily demarcated with biblical chapter headings alluding to “The First Day,” “The Second Day” and so on — on what otherwise proves a shaggy homecoming, during which memories are shared, resentments aired and souls bared, not necessarily in that order. While shards of old home video reveal the once-devoted relationship between Colleen and Jacob, she has trouble regaining that closeness with a man who has become an embittered shut-in, communicating mostly via furious bouts of heavy-metal drumming. His naive young fiancee Tricia (a terrific Kristin Slaysman, imbuing a low-key part with deep reserves of pain and confusion) is likewise pushed away.
Colleen has an even harder time reconnecting with Joan — whose initially effusive welcome doesn’t for a second conceal a profound rupture in their mother-daughter bond. (Dad, played with calculated ineffectuality by Peter Hedges, has barely a useful word to say.) A pot-smoking manic depressive who feigns more of an easy-breezy earth-mama disposition than her inner rage can ultimately sustain, Joan appears to take her daughter’s newfound religious vocation not as a divergence of lifestyle, but as a spiteful personal slight. “Dad and I thought you’d become a lesbian Satanist,” she tells Colleen, in a tone pitched more towards wistfulness than relief.
Their struggle to find mutual moral and spiritual ground, then, is what gives “Little Sister” its human spine, as the ugly roots of their rift are exposed. Sheedy scorchingly plays Joan as a figure out of the Todd Solondz playbook, wired to hurt or be hurt with every utterance; seething self-consciousness pops off even her kindest gestures like so much static electricity. She’s frightening to watch, acridly funny in equal measure — and has an ideally opposed scene partner in a revelatory Timlin, whose ingenuous stillness is all the more compelling for its ability to mutate into a manically improvised dance set to Gwar’s metal meltdown “Have You Seen Me?.” Such rhythmic switch-flipping is what Clark’s winningly singular filmography continues to be thrive on.
Clark once more edits his own work with admirable, close-pared discipline. Other below-the-line contributions, in line with the helmer’s past work, pleasingly mesh a scuzzy digital aesthetic with dreamy pop-art intrusions: Divine interventions of fuchsia light can flood the film’s expertly curated suburban interiors when fevered emotions call for it.