Though she never really went anywhere, Ally Sheedy’s return to form in Zach Clark’s SXSW indie Little Sister feels infinitely satisfying as a long-awaited big screen comeback for the Brat Pack actress, some 30 years after she first splashed onto the scene as part of The Breakfast Club’s iconic ensemble.
Sheedy’s character in Little Sister, Joani, a pot-smoking, wine-chugging matriarch of a dysfunctional family, feels like a natural progression from the loveable weirdo she played in the 1985 John Hughes classic. Watching the actress’ unbridled commitment to the quirks of the role feels like revisiting an old friend we regrettably lost touch with, dropping in years later, after she aged and matured while we looked the other way.
Little Sister follows Joani’s desperate attempts to court her estranged daughter, Colleen (Zero Hour’s Addison Timlin), home after her son, Jacob (Keith Poulson), returns from the Iraq War as a military hero. Three years prior, Colleen ditched the contentious family dynamic, leaving behind her mother’s raving outbursts for a new life at a convent in the heart of Brooklyn.
Though hesitant to reenter the realm of suburbia, Colleen weathers the journey to Asheville, North Carolina to make peace with her troubled kin ahead of taking her final vows. She quickly learns her absence hasn’t exactly been easy on the family – Joani is still a loose cannon (albeit a medicated one) who buckles under the resulting pressure of her daughter’s presence.
The film’s most interesting relationship blossoms between brother and sister, however, as both Colleen and Jacob are on separate paths of renewal. Once a tightly knit pair, their identities change in their shared absence—his face is burned beyond recognition during the war, while Colleen, a former Goth girl, erases the scars of a conflicted upbringing as she practices an alternative form of sisterhood at the nunnery.
Still, Colleen understands her true calling is perhaps rooted in more earthly matters than she’d anticipated. While exploring her former stomping grounds, she taps into an emotional space she’d long since ignored, sweetly recalling the innocence of her formative years, when she and Jacob basked in mutual oddity, heavy metal music, and an amusingly macabre brand of humor. Now, as he hides his scars behind hooded sweatshirts and sunglasses, Colleen realizes it’s her turn to take the lead, easing Jacob back into the world the same way he molded her budding perspective as a youngster.
Short, sweet, and nowhere near as prickly as it seems on the surface, Little Sister plays best when it’s not trying to coat its appealing brand of distorted realism with a punk rock sheen. Between the Marilyn Manson quote that opens the film, a comical dance number which sees Colleen gyrating to heavy metal as she mangles a baby doll, and a pseudo dark wave soundtrack, Little Sister is a compelling take on the dysfunctional family drama, one that—at times distractingly—dresses itself up in leather and studs (it’s a little more Avril Lavigne than Gwar) before getting to the goods at its unabashedly gooey center.
Timlin and Poulson create a believable rapport as the central siblings, though it’s Sheedy’s chemistry with the camera (and her character) that creates the film’s most dramatically satisfying moments. Little Sister wants us to tread lightly as it forges a quirky path through Colleen’s otherwise grim predicament, though it’s Sheedy’s spirited take on dark matters of the heart that ultimately leads the way. B–