Killing Clichés

By Tim Winterstein

On my last post, John Joseph Flanagan (who must have been a 19th-century Irish priest in a former life—no, I do not really believe in reincarnation) commented,

“I think you should consider filling your mind and exposing your eyes to more uplifting entertainment than horror movies and stories about zombies. After awhile in the cesspool of life, one can become really quite soiled you know. And if you just happen to be a Christian or at least profess to follow Jesus, you might consider the choices you make as indicative of your character and the virtues you embrace. ‘Guard your heart,’ the Bible tells us. Even Christian liberty can be abused, and to open yourself to the garbage you write about will surely lead to a dark path indeed, and away from the faith and far away from your Lord.”

The fact is, he’s right for the most part (despite the high school condescension). This is what I tried to say about mere slasher films. The point is not that horror is generally a particularly great film genre. The point is that some horror films contain themes that a more straightforward narrative genre may not be able to approach. And this is true of any genre. Comedy? It’s incredibly difficult to find a comedy that’s actually funny, let alone one that says something good or true. Most of it consists of vulgarities and sexually explicit “jokes.” And it’s not only that such things are usually unfunny; they’re simply tiresome. It’s rare to find a film that approaches things from a unique perspective—which,  considering the fact that nearly everything’s been done before, would have to be the goal. What is new is generally not new; it’s simply looking at old things from a different angle.

That said, what could be more “uplifting” and “indicative of [my] character and the virtues [I hope to] embrace” than a father who exhibits a pretty darn good likeness of repentance and self-giving sacrifice? Besides that, if you want something really edifying and uplifting, I’d suggest Genesis 9, Genesis 29-30, Ezekiel 23, and the Book of Judges.

On with the trivialities.

Indie films of which I’ve never heard are, by definition, a mixed bag. Who knows whether something’s going to be good or not—although I am usually hesitant to watch something that no one has ever recommended to me. So, it was with trepidation that I pressed play on Little Sister. What should I expect from a movie whose cover has a cartoon version of a pink-haired girl praying and a gothic-lettered title? What should I make of a film that begins with a Marilyn Manson quote and then a pot-smoking Ally Sheedy? Whatever else it is, it’s not a purely conventional movie.

And because it’s not conventional, it is exceedingly human. These aren’t stock characters, and their responses are unexpected because of it. Colleen, played by relative unknown (at least to me) Addison Timlin, is in the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn (the convent which incidentally was closed in 2008 and which is also the name of a UK goth-rock band). At a ridiculous performance “art” representation of the 9-11 attacks (including, naturally, the over-serious Brooklynite hipsters and two women with planes on their heads dancing around a building that becomes a third, burqa-covered dancer), she is mockingly asked whether she’s really a nun. Only moderately uncomfortable,  she says yes.

Predictably, this is the first indication that she is not suffering anything like a crisis in her decision to become a nun. No wonder it’s an indie! This is not to say she doesn’t feel the friction between her old life of black clothing, goth makeup, and punk and shock rock and her new life of prayer and service. In her old room, painted black, she turns right-side up her white crucifix. And her nunnish cardigans don’t quite work with her Misfits t-shirts. And yet, there’s continuity. When asked if her not drinking is a “nun thing,” she says, “No, it’s a Colleen thing.”

She decides to return home when she hears that her brother, a Marine, has come back, scarred literally and figuratively from war. He hides out in a dark little house on her parents’ property, behind hooded sweatshirts and black sunglasses, playing his drum set. The narrative turns on her relationship with her brother,  so close when they were young but now strained by time and experience; her relationship with her mother, who at some point tried to commit suicide (and is now self-medicating on top of her prescriptions); and her relationship with her brother’s fiancee and her best friend from high school. All of these relationships are far more complicated than in most indie comedies,  and that is what makes it appealing. None of the characters does precisely what you expect them to do at the times when you expect them to do it—a credit to the writer/director, Zach Clark, (whose work is,  again, unknown to me).

Finally, this is a film that should be much more widely known, if for nothing else than its ability to walk right up to clichés before inverting them into something recognizable as simple human complexity (with oxymoron intact). The clichés that minor characters utter are viewed with disdain by both Colleen and her brother, Jacob. This is as it should be in life generally—perhaps especially when it comes to Christianity. Clichés kill what is good or true by repetition into oblivion. War, religion, depression, tragedy, politics—Little Sister shows that all are minimized, even neutralized, when they become clichés. Once in a while, an unknown indie comedy pays off.