Little Sister: Good News for the Goth Family

This spooky little treat comes to us from Caleb Stallings. “Fail to see the tragic, Turn […]

Guest Contributor / 10.19.17

This spooky little treat comes to us from Caleb Stallings.

“Fail to see the tragic,
Turn it into magic!”

– Marilyn Manson

“Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.”

Psalm 74:2, NRSV

Halloween came strangely early for me this year. By the time September was settling in, I was already halfway through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with The Cramps’ Off the Bone constantly buzzing in the background. And as soon as October arrived, the un-carved pumpkins were placed, the paper skeletons were hung, and the ghoulish festivities were well under way. Horror was on my mind, but I couldn’t have been happier.

Now as inherently weird as all of that is, I’ve since realized it’s even more so considering the preexisting decor in my house. For example, a wooden ghost my father hand-carved for me when I was a child is sitting right beneath a golden cross my mother received upon her confirmation into the Lutheran Church when she was a child. A kitsch, plastic vampire stands right next to my grandmother’s Book of Common Prayer, while a black cat candle illumines my pastor-dad’s old King James Bible. The more I’ve thought about this unusual juxtaposition, the more I’ve realized how Halloween and the Gospel and my family have always been inextricably connected for me. And it’s these unlikely strands that come together to make the rich tapestry of Zach Clark’s indie film Little Sister.

The movie’s about a soft-spoken, twenty-something nun, Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin) who’s struggling to find meaning in her convent in Brooklyn with the Sisters of Mercy. On the outside, Colleen’s actually a model nun: she cooks for and feeds the homeless, she reads the Scriptures to the elderly in nursing homes, and she even ventures out into the uninviting world of hipster performance art in order to encourage her struggling artist friends. But underneath all of her good works is a deep and unshakeable melancholy.

We get the sense that Colleen is running from something, which is only confirmed when she begins avoiding emails and calls from her estranged, pagan mother. But finally her mom gets through to her when Colleen realizes these messages are about her older brother who has come home from the Iraq War with major disfigurement and depression. Consequently, she floats through her duties with a kind of sad ennui, unsure of her calling and how she should respond to her family. Finally, through the prompting of her Mother Superior, Colleen decides to take time away from the convent to tie up some loose ends and to reckon with her doubts before she takes her final vows.

She reluctantly decides to travel home to Asheville, North Carolina to see her troubled family. Suddenly the movie cuts from its relentless metal drumming to a tender version of “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated Lord to Thee.” This reveals one of the most interesting things about Little Sister: both in sight and sound, it forces Catholic and Goth culture to become strange bedfellows. It’s jarring and unpleasant…at first. But as the story unfolds, we see how closely the two are entangled, and how, in some way, they help make sense of one another. Colleen hits the road with a Bible and a prayer. The colorful leaves are falling, but Resurrection is on the way.

Broadly speaking, Little Sister succeeds as a reenactment of the creation narrative: a calling out of chaos into an ordered love. At the beginning of the film, the Reverend Mother (Barbara Crampton) tells Colleen, “It took God six days to create the universe. You should be able to get your act together in five.” This sets the Genesis 1 countdown clock in motion. As Colleen arrives at and enters into her darkened childhood home, she switches on all the lights. “Day One” flashes on the screen, and so begins the long, winding road to redemption.

Once Colleen settles in and her family returns, we understand why she felt the initial need to escape. Her father Bill (Peter Hedges) is sweet and well-meaning but is also awkwardly ineffectual in uniting his family. Her mother Joani (Ally Sheedy) is committed to her dark persona, while wildly oscillating between emotionally volatile and borderline comatose. And her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has become a recluse, most tragically with his serious girlfriend Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), since his face was horribly scarred in the war. At best, everyone playacts at being a contented, well-adjusted family, but right beneath the surface, there is a palpable sense of despair and even terror. Even Colleen—the one believer in the family—is not immune to its accusatory power.

To make things even more stark, the film is cast against the 2008 election of Barack Obama, whose campaign was built on the premise of hope. Several vignettes of news footage and presidential debates pop up throughout the film with expectant and hopeful responses from Colleen’s folks and the citizens of Asheville. But the inclusion of this political undercurrent reveals all the ways in which these characters are being set up for a lifetime of disappointment. Little Sister hit the film festival circuit in early 2016, right in the middle of a tumultuous election cycle. If anything is clear to us as the audience nearly a decade later, it’s that campaign promises sometimes are only that. Now this isn’t to pass judgments against certain political persuasions but simply is to point out that most of the people in this film hang all of their hopes on a sweeping era of political and cultural change that never really comes.

At one point, a beleaguered Tricia desperately confesses to Colleen, “Everybody’s had such a hard time. I’m stuck here, and I don’t know what to do.” This isn’t just emblematic for everyone in the movie, but everyone watching it as well. Life has twisted and crushed every one of us in its own vicious way, making it seemingly impossible that any one could find true healing and restoration.

It’s soon revealed that Colleen left home three years prior as an act of rebellion against her hopeless, pagan upbringing. Sure, there’s no spell-casting or ritualistic chanting happening in the Lunsford home, but there is a deep sadness in Joani’s voice when she confesses to Colleen later in the film, “Your dad and I used to think you’d become a lesbian Satanist.” And it’s with equal sadness that Colleen replies, “Sometimes I think you’re sad I’m not.” Colleen’s family doesn’t know what to make of her. In one hilarious scene, her parents awkwardly lurch at their first family dinner when she stops to say her prayers while they’re already a few bites in. The Lunsfords don’t know if her Christianity is real or not, or if, in fact, Colleen is real or not. It really does seem that her conversion was initially just a rejection of her family’s nihilism and an inability, or unwillingness, to forgive them for it. But to their surprise, her faith comes alive as she reenters this dysfunctional family, embracing them in all their bizarre habits and broken identities. It’s here where Gospel come to life in her. As she goes to bed at the end of Day One, she turns the inverted crucifix hanging in her adolescent, gothed-out room right-side up, says her evening prayers, and gets to work.

It takes Days Two and Three for Colleen to get her bearings in this familiar world. She uses the time well by reconnecting with a high school friend and her parents. But it’s not until Day Four that she is able to break into Jacob’s languishing, who whiles away his days playing heavy metal drums in the pool house. Through prayer and mediation, Colleen realizes the only real strategy to reach him is incarnational. Namely, she must empty herself of her dignified status as a nun and instead take on the humbled form of a goth. She dyes her hair hot pink, layers on white foundation, and forces her way into Jacob’s room, where she finally breaks down his barriers with an insane lip-synced performance of GWAR’s “Can You See Me?” The scene is, in every sense of the word, scandalous. GWAR is one of the most shocking and irreverent metal bands with gratuitous usage of profanity, violence, and perversion. A friend of mine suggested to me that this scene is just too much to bear, and he’s absolutely right. It’s deeply flawed and complicated, but that’s actually why it reminds me so much of the scandal of Christ on the cross, who enters into our filth and suffers under it in order to set us free from its unrelenting tyranny.

Colleen’s humbling has the humanizing effect she hopes for, and Jacob agrees to leave his darkness to go for an afternoon walk in the woods with her. But soon, a young hiker stumbles onto them, and Jacob’s worst fear comes to light: someone has seen him unmasked and disfigured. “Are you monsters?” the child nervously asks. Jacob looks to his little sister who, for his sake, is standing by his side with pink hair, black lipstick, and an undying love. Emboldened, he replies, “Yeah. We’re monsters.” Colleen lets out a vampiric hiss, and the Power of Sin recoils in terror.

The film culminates in a Halloween party on Day Six, when the family comes together to dance to silly goth rock, watch cheesy horror movies, eat festive sweets, and all while wearing goofy monster costumes. Although relationships are beginning to be restored, the night is not without its tensions. One ill-advised action from Joani, baking weed into the cupcakes, leads to a dramatic confrontation from Colleen about her perpetual underhandedness. But what Colleen discovers in her mother’s trick is a heart-breaking cry for help. In a scene that functions eerily similar to a confessional booth, Joani describes how she has felt a gaping emptiness her entire life. She tried to find purpose when she started having kids but discovered she was more weighted down than ever. Life seemed meaningless. All she wanted to do was sleep and never wake back up, which is why she attempted suicide three years prior, and why Colleen left home completely disillusioned. But things have changed now. Instead of revulsion, Colleen feels real empathy and weeps with her mother. In another surprising twist, Joani is finally absolved: “It’s good to talk, isn’t it?”

Without spoiling some of the remaining treats this movie has to give out, the good news is that the end of the story is actually a new beginning. The film ends one year later in the life of the Lunsfords. What seemed like a movie that was destined for death instead has been transfigured into a story of Resurrection. Colleen takes her final vows, “God of mercy and compassion, I celebrate your faithfulness and love for me, and I praise Your name.” She then returns home to a wedding, and a Christian one of all things. The darkness has lifted, not through paganism or politics, but through the hope of the Gospel.

I was on the phone with my mom recently talking to her about how strange it is that she and my dad never resisted my delight in Halloween. “Do you remember buying me that Universal Movie Monsters coloring book when I was four? Did it bother you seeing how fascinated I was with Count Dracula and the Wolf-man and Halloween in general?” Without hesitation she responded, “No, because I didn’t really think Halloween was evil. It wasn’t about darkness; it was about celebration.” Words spoken like a believing Christian. For the Lunsford family, the hopelessness once associated with Halloween has been eternally defeated. In light of its death stands the risen Christ, ready to redeem brooding goths, hurting pagans, and needy celebrators like you and me.