Little Sister presents the coming of age story of a novitiate nun who makes an odyssey back to her childhood home for a week of self-reflection while deciding whether to take her formal vows. Her family is more than a little dysfunctional, the settings—the convent is in Brooklyn, the childhood home in Asheville—are each realistically and beautifully rendered and the narrative has enough rich personal details about the characters to keep the audience involved. In other words, Little Sister is precisely the sort of engaging, well-crafted independent adult drama that populates Netflix queues around the country.

While Little Sister is a fine, above-average film, it would be a stretch to characterize it as good. Few components of the craft involved stand out: the writing is adequate, the acting is professional quality, the cinematography should be a little more interested in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the soundtrack meets expectations and the ultimate message is standard US-American optimism overcoming the temptation to cynicism. The film’s best features are the set design and make-up. The interior spaces of Little Sister feel absolutely lived in, the convent cafeteria is a perfect replica of the real thing in both furnishings and atmosphere and the characters’ make-up, which is crucial to the plot, is impressively realistic.

Colleen, the nun, (Addison Timlin), has returned to her home to see her brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) who has just returned to the house himself. Jacob was severely injured in Iraq, having his entire head and face burned in an explosion (the good make-up work). Colleen and Jacob’s parents are a mess, particularly their mother, who recently attempted suicide and is addicted to an assortment of narcotics. The film, smartly, enables and then voyeuristically observes this strange situation. Writer/director Zach Clark’s writing does not invent drama that is not there; he lets the characters organically clash and align, reminisce and argue. Little Sister is about a group of weird people with a strong yet arbitrary connection to one another just being who they are. This is aided by the realistic, lived-in interior sets. This style creates good jokes, like a nice jab at Heineken’s hyper-aggressive efforts at having its product placed in every film and TV show made in the last decade.

This is conventional, effective filmmaking by Clark. Given the current behavior of a certain Presidential candidate and his mass appeal, it is comforting to know that independent cinema is still capable of producing mature, straightforward content with confidence there is still an audience of adults who are capable of enjoying adult products. Not all of mass media is puerile, loud or struggling to perform an uncouth and distasteful brashness.

Thinking of the film in connection with election season is not arbitrary, either. This is because the film is insistent on making its time period, October and November 2008, plain. This moment, of course, saw the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. The campaign and its result are featured prominently in the film, with several yard signs, conversations and even a televised Vice Presidential debate as background noise signaling its importance in the daily lives of the subsidiary characters. Notably, neither Colleen nor Jacob seems to care about the political theatre.

The campaign is so insistently featured because it relates directly to the thesis of Little Sister, which while not original is argued in a new way. The film contends that entering adulthood is a complicated balancing act between having fidelity to one’s childhood and openness to one’s future possibilities. For a fleeting moment between adolescence and being a fully-formed adult, Clark suggests that each of us is precariously oriented both to the past and the future. The result is that every adult is a palimpsest, a person for whom the past remains a visible trace and the future an uncertain reality. Each person stays connected to childhood, however tenuously, even while forging the person she/he will become.

To get to this rather banal—but certainly worthwhile and affirming—conclusion, Clark offers the audience two characters, Colleen and Jacob, who have gone through literal physical alterations as they endeavor to become adults. The operating metaphor here is a mask. Colleen was a hardcore goth in high school with pink hair and a heavily painted face. Now, she is a clean-cut, socially-conservative nun. She battles these two faces of herself during her week of self-reflection at home, weighing which face to have in the future. Jacob, of course, has no choice; his face was burned off. But he, too, faces a decision for his life regarding how heavily to allow the past to encroach upon his future. Two siblings who knew each other as teenagers who both went away and returned home with drastically new faces/masks. Who are they now? Who will they be tomorrow?

Featuring the campaign so heavily throughout the film expands the mask/future metaphor to the film’s audience. In 2008, the US electorate put on a mask of “hope and change” and quite literally changed the face of the nation. In 2016, it, too, faces a choice of which future to adopt. There is cynicism here, as the characters in 2008 North Carolina seem much more excited about politics than the US public of 2016. Deepening the cynicism is the inherent superficiality of a mask. But there is optimism, too. The electorate has agency in this process of finding a mask and it can allow, as Colleen and Jacob ultimately do, that mask to be the true portrayal of who it really is. Clark unearths reasons for optimism in this process in what is a funny, positive film.

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