Passionate parents can be pretty stifling for their dispassionate children. Well, that's not quite what 2016's Little Sister is trying to say though the film, set during the 2008 presidential election, inevitably comes off differently after Trump's election. But it's a pretty, slightly fetishised look at a young woman in training to be a nun and the family she's reacted against her whole life.
The movie has echoes of The Breakfast Club, featuring Ally Sheedy as Joani Lunsford, the mother of the central character, Colleen (Addison Timlin), and begins with a quote from Marilyn Manson from his first album which, having come out in the early 90s, makes it roughly equivalent to the David Bowie quote from 1971's "Changes" that opens 1985's The Breakfast Club.
Not that I'm arguing Manson is half the artist David Bowie was (I'm sure he wouldn't either) but like the Bowie quote from "Changes" it sets up the thematic conflict between disaffected youth and an adult world trying to enforce its own vision. Sheedy's character in particular is an interesting contrast to her "basket case" character in Breakfast Club. She's still a basket case but of a different kind, or possibly an evolution of the same kind. She and her husband, Colleen's father, are passionate Obama/Biden supporters, taking part in the wave of anti-Bush sentiment. She's a proud pot smoker and really wants Colleen to start smoking pot, too.
But the film's argument, posed with a kind of ironic understatement, is that the political and personal passions of the left in 2008 were shallow and fuelled more by narcissism than true belief in the cause. Sheedy's character is shown as unreasonable in her treatment of Colleen, screaming at her for coming home late in one scene even though Colleen had only just returned home after having been living in the convent. Later, she laughs at Colleen's disgusted reaction when meat is put on her breakfast plate despite knowing that Colleen is a lifelong vegetarian. Colleen's brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), whose face was completely burned off in his service in Iraq, is confronted by a stranger in a drug store who says to him with weird fervour, "I bet you're so glad for Obama!"
There is certainly some truth to this--for any cause there are plenty of people who don't understand their true reasons for being in it. With all the cards stacked against the side that cares about politics, it's easy to see why the consistent thread in Colleen's life has been reacting against it. In high school, we learn, she'd been a Marilyn Manson fan, I'll say "goth" even though I still remember a time when it was hotly debated whether Manson fans could be goth. I don't think this film really has such a fine appreciation for the subculture, though, any more than it really seems to understand what it's like to be a nun. One of the main problems with the film is that it spools out backstory instead of developing the main story. We see, without knowing exactly why, Colleen leaving the convent at the beginning--we don't learn of her brother's recent injury until she arrives at the family home where he's living with his fiancee (Kristin Slaysman). This makes a disconnect between the audience and Colleen despite the fact that the camera is almost constantly studying her pretty face.
As she goes back to her goth clothes and hair to entertain her brother, dancing to "Have You Seen Me?" by Gwar, the film takes on the quality of a harem anime with every woman in the story trying to figure out how to please him. His fiancee is a gorgeous, buxom blonde who dances for him in her lingerie, and the climax of the film is very much about attending his needs though, again, we learn practically nothing about him but plot points--he served in Iraq, his face was burned, and now he doesn't want to talk to people much. And he also doesn't care about politics much.
And that's fair, not everyone should feel they have to be passionate about politics. But for this message it certainly feels like bad timing. An unintended consequence is that the film reminds me how complacent people are free to be when they have it good.