If I describe 2016’s Little Sister, it will sound like a quirky-for-quirk’s-sake, typical and self-important indie film: Addison Timlin plays Colleen, a former goth who is now a novitiate in Brooklyn close to taking her first vows. She visits her estranged family in Asheville, North Carolina where her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), has returned from the Iraq War, his face horrifically burned. There are countless indie films about a twenty-something returning home to a family from whom they feel alienated, where they learn something or other before returning to the big city, and if Little Sister just swapped the personalities involved – a stuffy conservative young person and their free-thinking liberal parents – it would be really boring (I know because I’ve seen Smart People and it was really boring).
Instead, Little Sister is a weird, melancholy film, both quiet and tense. It takes faith more seriously than its premise might imply, and deals with family relationships in a way that breaks from a lot of the shorthand this kind of film usually employs. Some reviews have described it as slight, but really it has almost too much going on: in addition to the goth stuff, the nun stuff, Colleen’s relationship with Jacob, and the Iraq War, there’s Colleen’s troubled relationship with her depressed mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), whose attempted suicide prompted Colleen to leave home, both of her parents’ pot use, Jacob’s complicated relationship with his fiancée, and Colleen’s high school friend Emily’s involvement with a radical animal liberation group. Some of it doesn’t quite land – the animal liberation stuff, in particular, seems like all set up and no payoff – but a remarkable amount of it does.
The film is loose and sometimes meandering, but Addison Timlin’s central performance as Colleen is fantastic, as is Ally Sheedy’s. They both give the kind of performances that remind you of the value of naturalism as something layered from the inside out, instead of empty. Sheedy’s Joani says to Colleen, “Your dad and I used to think you’d become a lesbian Satanist.” Colleen replies, “Sometimes I think you’re sad I’m not.” In any other film, that would be cringeworthy, but Little Sister not only manages to make it sincere, but genuinely affecting.
Plus it has a scene where Colleen, with her hair dyed pink and goth make-up on her face, performs an interpretive dance to GWAR involving baby dolls and jelly, and it’s awesome.
It’s also a film about Barack Obama. Little Sister is set in October 2008, and the presidential election hums in the background. There’s audio of debates and footage of news coverage, characters mention the upcoming election in dialogue and there are Obama/Biden stickers and yard signs all over the place. Some critics thought this was poorly integrated or superfluous, or merely intended to give an illusion of depth, but the references to the election feel natural instead of forced, how politics exists in ordinary lives in way that most films try to scrub out.
The references to Obama aren’t aimless. The film has something to say about Obama, but it’s hard to pin down. When a woman in a supermarket says to Jacob, “Everyone here thinks of you as a real hero, and I just – I just think it’s a shame you boys were wasted on this stupid war… Bet you thank your lucky stars for Obama,” it’s fraught with ambiguity. The film frames Obama as an anti-war figure, and it’s hard to know if the film believes that, or if it’s about how the hope that so many invested in Obama turned out to be misplaced. The woman in the supermarket says “Bet you thank your lucky stars for Obama,” and maybe we’re supposed to think of Obama leaving Iraq, or maybe we’re supposed to remember that he did so on George Bush’s timeline. We hear Barack Obama’s voiceover against a black screen saying, “Change has come to America,” and I don’t know if I’m supposed to be inspired, or hurt and disappointed and angry.
If Little Sister was made in 2009, it would play like a hagiography. The characters in Little Sister believe in Obama’s hope and change, even if it’s just background noise to the business of family drama. In one of the first scenes in the film, Colleen goes to see an anti-Bush performance art show, one that uses costumes and recorded audio to highlight not only Bush’s failure to prevent 9/11 and the wrongheadedness of the Iraq War, but to frame John McCain as a continuation of Bush’s warmongering, using his famous “bomb Iran” comment. When Jacob tells his mother he probably won’t watch the presidential debate, she says, “Sweet potato, you of all people –”
One thing is for sure: this election is about the war. At one point, the same style of transition that is used to introduce the news anchors who talk about the election or the economic crash – audio over the last seconds of the previous scene, and then a cut to the television, and then a cut to the characters watching the television – is used to introduce the news anchor from Night of the Living Dead. “…the wave of murder, which is sweeping the eastern third of the nation, is being committed by creatures who feast upon the flesh of their victims.” Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie, but it’s about the Vietnam War. It uses terminology like “search and destroy,” and its stylistic choices evoke the news footage from Vietnam beamed into every television set in America. In Night of the Living Dead, war comes to Pennsylvania, instead of being exported out.
Colleen and Jacob watch it in 2008, and Jacob tells Colleen what it felt like to know he would die. War has come to North Carolina.
I was fourteen when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. It wasn’t the first time I became interested in politics, but it made me excited about politics in a way I’d never been before. I already hated George Bush and the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay with the childish fervour of someone not yet old enough to trick themselves into believing that war or torture are okay. In 2008, I loved and admired Barack Obama. I read Dreams from My Father. I believed him when he talked about change and hope and healthcare and Iraq, and I was elated when he won. I delivered a speech in my English class asking not to have homework so I could watch his inauguration (it didn’t work, but I watched it anyway).
The eight years of Obama’s presidency broke my heart, over and over again, in ways both huge and small. There was his drones programme, which murdered civilians in states with which the US was not at war – a programme that he chose to make opaque and unaccountable, murders that he chose to obscure by defining a combatant as any military-age male who happened to get in the way. There was his failure to introduce stringent regulations on Wall Street in response to the 2008 crash, when there was more public appetite for such regulation than a president could dream of and a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, and his decision not to push to prosecute the financial executives who caused the crash in the first place. There’s the detention camp on Guantanamo Bay, still open and operating.
And there’s Donald Trump.
I didn’t really reckon with the scope of Obama’s failure until Donald Trump was elected. My friends and I watched many networks’ coverage of the 2016 election, staying up through the night as the results came in, but what sticks with me the most – other than curling up on the floor, an immovable ball of anxiety – was Fox News showing maps comparing the 2016 results, county by county, with the 2012 and 2008 results. There were counties in the Midwest where Obama had won by 20 points that went to Trump. Eight years of heartbreak solidified in a way that I’d never let it before. Something changed, that night; it’s easy to call it disillusionment with the centre, but I’d been various places along the left wing for a long time. But up until then, I’d always thought that we were all on the same side, that centrist liberals were either leftists-to-be or pursuing common goals in a different way. I don’t think that anymore.
There are people whose hearts remain unbroken. Who say that Obama is right to take huge money to give speeches on Wall Street – “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No, no, no, no, no, my friend… Fuck that and fuck you!” – or act as if the Affordable Care Act must be unquestionably great (better, even, than single payer) just because it’s an improvement on what was there before, even though it’s a watery policy to the right of Nixoncare, failing to provide a public option which means that in some states a single private insurance company has a monopoly. These unbroken hearts never mention drones, or Guantanamo, and they didn’t care at all about Chelsea Manning being tortured until they could praise Obama for commuting her sentence in the last days of his presidency. They talk about terrible things that Trump might do – murdering civilians with no accountability, or mass deportations – as if those things weren’t core policies of the Obama presidency.
If we were watching Little Sister in 2009, it would give you a well of hope in your chest. You would watch this small human drama under the shadow of the Iraq War, and feel happy knowing that they wouldn’t be in the shadow much longer. Barack Obama was against the war in Iraq, and he wins the election.
Instead, the film came out in 2016, when Hillary Clinton (who voted for the Iraq War) was running as a third term of Obama. At times, it plays like an indictment. The lady in the supermarket saying “bet you thank your lucky stars for Obama” when she talks about lives wasted in a pointless war seems cynical in a way it wouldn’t have before. “People want to vote for change,” Colleen’s friend Emily tells her, “But they don’t actually want to do the changing.” Maybe she’s the film’s mouthpiece for criticism of Obama, or maybe she’s a crazy animal rights terrorist, or maybe she’s both. A few lines from Obama’s acceptance speech play near the end, and I’m not sure if it’s supposed to ring hollow and temper the happy ending with some melancholy, or if I’m supposed to believe it.
Critics and scholars often talk about the importance of the context of a piece of art, but context is something slippery and complicated. In any case, there are so many permutations of social, political, cultural and individual contexts, not just to how the film is made, but how it is seen and how it is critically received – and the context of all the films that have come before it. Watching Little Sister in 2017, it could be a pro-Obama film or a film about misplaced hope, but if you thought it was made shortly after the 2008 election, would any cynical edge disappear? If someone watches it ten or twenty years from now, when Obama’s legacy has been more defined, will Little Sister bend to the dominant opinion, or stand out against it?
If you made a film now where people were excited about the election of Richard Nixon, it wouldn’t come across as pro-Nixon. But if you made a film where people were excited about the election of Ronald Reagan, it could go either way.
Some contexts get more attention than others – if future film audiences only remember Obama as the first black president, Little Sister will be a hopeful story about a changing America. I recently watched High Noon, the 1952 Gary Cooper Western, and I was aware that it was very political, but I couldn’t figure out quite what it was saying. I found out that it’s an allegory for the blacklisting of communists and alleged communists in Hollywood, and you don’t have to know that to enjoy the film, but it definitely adds another layer. The allegory was obvious to audiences in 1952, to the point of being a point of controversy, in a way that it isn’t to most modern audiences.
On the Waterfront is also an allegory for McCarthyism, from the opposite side: director Elia Kazan ratted out on several communists in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and On the Waterfront defends his actions through the allegory of Marlon Brando deciding to rat on a criminal gang. What Kazan did was indefensible, but On the Waterfront is one of the best films ever made. It transcends its context, and is a better film when divorced from it. The allegory in High Noon enriches it, but the allegory in On the Waterfront drags it down, hems in a transcendent story with its specificity.
Critical discourse about film spends a lot of time talking about a work’s social implications, and fair enough. All art has social implications, to varying degrees, and that stuff can be really interesting. But the emphasis can be distorting: as if art’s main or only purpose is to communicate values, instead of providing an aesthetic or emotional experience. It’s what made American critics reviewing Free Fire more likely to talk about the tiny amount of subtext about the decline of manufacturing labour in the West than about the quality of its slapstick.
Art communicates values, but it does so inefficiently, because it needs to use aesthetics to communicate them. To communicate values as clearly and unambiguously as possible, art has to sacrifice some aesthetic qualities – like the pages-long speeches in The Fountainhead that explain Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. If you treat art as a blunt instrument for disseminating your values, you ultimately don’t care about art at all. When people cheered Hidden Figures beating Silence at the box office, as if Silence was some kind of blockbuster, it seemed like the films themselves didn’t matter at all. They were just political tools.
I don’t know what Little Sister says about Obama, and not only is that okay, it’s kind of great. A film isn’t some immovable thing with one true meaning. Its meaning can change, be interpreted and reinterpreted in new contexts. When Colleen says she doesn’t drink, her friend Emily asks, “Is that, like, a nun thing?” Colleen says, “It’s still a Colleen thing.” Little Sister is a film about the specific that resists making claims about the general.
It records a moment in time without winking to the audience from the time when it was made. There’s value in exploring a moment in the past without reducing it to a comment on the present. Little Sister just exists in its moment, because inside a moment is where people live and feel.