Politics continually influences art, and art continually comments on politics, but the events of 2016 (and so far 2017) have made it difficult for me to view film through any apolitical lens. Any grouping of people onscreen is no longer a grouping of characters, but a representation and commentary of their demographic. Sci-fi dystopia no longer feels as comfortably removed as it once did. A character’s internal struggle is suddenly a metaphor for America, with one side either selfish or unrealistic. Hell, its somehow not even apolitical to have a Nazi get punched anymore. A lot of it is clearly not intentional on the part of the filmmakers (although oftentimes it clearly is), but my mind has been hardwired by current events to extrapolate the events shown as a commentary on the world writ large. La La Land isn’t primarily an energetic ode to old-school Hollywood, but a commentary on how white people get sad when they get almost everything but not quite everything. Nocturnal Animals isn’t a twisty, intriguing thriller but a commentary on how creative elites care not for the hoi polloi. The Jungle Book isn’t a movie about a kid in the jungle, but primarily a fable about abuse of power via convenient, fire-wielding scapegoats.
Little Sister, a family dramedy written and directed by Zach Clark, smartly turns this tendency on its head. Rather than scaling up to reflect political conditions, Little Sister uses contemporary politics to inform and contextualize it’s small-scale family struggles. Little Sister tells the story of young nun Colleen, who is preparing to take her vows when her mother Joani, whom she broke ties with after a suicide attempt, convinces her to come back home when her brother Jacob arrives home from Iraq severely scarred. Where the politics set in is its oddly specific time period, taking place in North Carolina during the debate season of the 2008 Obama/McCain American election. Broadly speaking, Colleen’s parents are the hard-left grow-op-supporting type, so the word “change” tends to get thrown around a lot. This conflicts with their childrens’ experiences, them being a war veteran and a nun, although the movie never explicitly highlights this (One of my favourite scenes involves Joadi talking to a couple at a party, being caught up on their adoption and general joie de vivre. Assuming an internal family strife, they ask about Joadi’s dog instead.) It uses the assumptions we place on these people based on simply their broadest characteristics to show how easy it is for even family to place each other in bubbles, and how hard it is to break those assumptions. It uses that time period to comment on how people assume “change” is the answer, even if they are unable to point to how it will affect them personally. In a fairly devastating fashion, it also uses our familiarity with political hope as an impersonal mirror to how we can put blind faith in large-scale solutions to our personal problems. But the political connection is a shortcut to help us understand the characters, which we can then turn around to understand ourselves, as opposed to a condemnation or celebration of Obama or Bush or Trump.
Even without the political connection, Little Sister would be a warm coming-home drama, with a fantastic central trio in Addison Timlin, Keith Poulson, and Ally Sheedy. It’s occasionally hilarious, reasonably stylish, and treats all of its characters with sympathy (except maybe the New Yorkers who create 9/11-themed dance art, but I’ll let that one slide). The central relationship between Timlin’s Colleen and Poulson’s Jacob is particularly heartwarming, and Sheedy gives Joadi enough of a villainous bend to lend some dramatic tension to much of the film while still providing enough humanity to sell her more tender moments. It may have been a touch slight without its more political elements, but it would still be a relatable slice of life.
Little Sister (2016)
Directed by Zach Clark
Starring Addison Timlin, Keith Poulson, Kristin Slaysman, and Ally Sheedy
Rotten Tomatoes (95%)