Two young siblings duke it out for domination in suburbia. Big brother Tommy has the advantage: he’s older, bigger and tougher, and he’s not afraid to play dirty, whether it’s stealing his little sister Tiny’s food at dinner or distracting her at a school-wide relay race so that she gets off to a late start.
But Tiny has a plan to level the playing field, one that capitalizes on her smarts, ingenuity and resourcefulness — and she goes to great lengths to score herself a small but very satisfying victory.
Writer-director David Barr’s cheeky, charming family comedy is a study in sibling rivalry, told with a genuine sense of sweetness that never feels too cute or cloying. Told with almost no dialogue, the storytelling nevertheless captures Tiny’s world, full of the small but significant indignities that she suffers at the hands of Tommy.
With a lack of dialogue, the film is reliant on good performances to communicate character and emotion. Young performer Sophia Ally plays Tiny, bringing appealing intelligence and nuance to a role that could come across as twee. She’s rightfully indignant, hurt and disappointed with how Tommy treats her, but she’s also smart, and goes about her plans with a sense of pluck, confidence and patience. Tom Harrison plays her brother with just the right degree of stereotypical big-brother attitude, and his behavior comes across as casually bratty, but never hateful or full of vengeance. This isn’t a dysfunctional family, but an archetypal one.
With a measured, gentle narrative pace and deliberate editing — and backed by an excellently evocative musical score — the audience watches Tiny research, trial and ultimately execute her ingenuous plan, building to a funny, endearing reveal. Tiny’s achievement is not just brilliant in itself, but also in her precocious understanding of strategy. In this particular game of sibling rivalry, winning doesn’t happen by being stronger or faster, but in being smarter in finding a different way to the finish line.
Many family-oriented films can err on the side in cuteness, but what works in “A Modest Defeat” is how it recognizes the intensity and seriousness of the emotional life of children, even as its aesthetic decisions elevate the story to the level of a modern fairy tale. Young children in any situation often strive to feel a sense of agency and efficacy, to feel more than pawns of the bigger forces around them. They may not be scientific geniuses like Tiny, but they can rely on inner resources like cleverness, calm and equanimity to eke out the victories that build confidence and self-worth in the long run.