This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival produced a couple of items by me likely to surface presently in Sight & Sound magazine, and more immediate reactions to:
Human nature was fraying under pressure in the UK by the end of the festival; but all four of these had something to say on the topic in one way or another, proving that art never stops mattering.
The announcement of the festival’s prize winners confirmed that I didn’t see a single one of them, but also meant that EIFF missed the chance to pin its International laurel onto Zach Clark’s Little Sister, the most self-assured film in the programme by some distance. I’m on record somewhere about two of his earlier films, which both seemed to twitch with a jittery ground-level static built up just from the act of their own creation — and also admired rather than loved White Reindeer, a test of how some Sirk-ian melodrama might work in an age where we all know what goes on in the suburbs and have seen all the films.
Little Sister moulds the essences of both styles around a seemingly calmer story, but one that is still spiky enough to support both empathy for its familial pains and a perspective on the world they’re emerging from — which happens to be the world of George W Bush and the Iraq disaster. It involves a terrific show of muted resilience from Addison Timlin — time to state out loud that Mr. Clark is among the finest directors of low-key female durability currently in business — playing a character working towards a life governed by faith, whose faith is daringly neither mocked nor leached away by the film. In fact it’s confirmed, through her confrontation with the physical effects on someone she loves of the equally religious world of improvised explosive devices shaping up over the horizon. Not for nothing does the physical reality of those wounds borrow something from the visuals of excessively flamboyant European horror films — not to mention from Kevin Bacon’s post-latex period in Hollow Man — in a film of calm compassion, if not outright contemplation, and Italianate style more generally. But then not for nothing does Barbara Crampton, once of director Stuart Gordon’s parish, appear in the film as a long-suffering Reverend Mother, beautifully photographed by Daryl Pittman as if she was limned by faith itself.
All this sits inside an initially familiar Clark-ish wrapper of North Carolina houses and porches and yards. Characters like Molly Plunk’s affable eco-terrorist — a label to conjure with in the circumstances — and the pair of happily content lesbians encountered at a Halloween party don’t exactly echo individuals in the previous films so much as align in sympathy, for reasons emerging from the casting as much as anything else; as if the universe was resonating along familiar lines.
Maybe it is. The director’s other films have also waded into thorny tangles of love and fraught understanding and done so with gusto; but Little Sister has a bigger heart in its chest and a bigger sky over its head than they did. It’s a film about faith without necessarily being a film of faith, and astute about human nature as well as American nightmares. It’s a reminder of what indie energy looks like on a wide screen when it works on classical lines with subtlety and grace in a modern context, right down to the fact that it’ll presumably meet its ultimate audience on a much smaller screen altogether. And a reminder that art either engages with how people tick or it doesn’t, and the distinction about which category is which is not hard to make.