Meier softly examines, but it also keys into the lost nature of these wandering figures, constantly striving for something more than the squalor they truly exist in.
The Swiss entry into this year’s Foreign Language Film race at the Academy Awards, Sister could work almost as a companion piece to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s masterful The Kid With A Bike. This one also centers itself on a small, stubborn and determined parentless young boy who strikes out on his own, gets into some criminal behavior and develops a surrogate mother/son relationship with a woman he meets by chance. Here, the boy is Simon and is played with remarkable maturity by Kacey Mottet Klein. Simon is well beyond his years, having to grow up quick in order to provide a living for himself and his sister, portrayed by Lea Seydoux. The two live near a ski resort, and every day Simon heads to the top of the slopes in order to steal equipment from those spending their vacation here so that he can profit from selling it off himself.
Directed by Ursula Meier, Sister has clear influences from the Dardenne brothers, particularly in its shooting style. The camera stays close on the characters almost at all times, often giving a documentary feel to its examination of the two of them and their relationship with one another. There’s a shaky subplot with a kitchen worker played by Martin Compston and a much better one with Gillian Anderson’s wealthy resort guest, but the primary focus of the picture remains on Simon and his relationship with his sister Louise.
The two have grown up with one another and spend their days trying to get by, but as Simon has grown more responsible and composed, sacrificing himself every day in order to provide, Louise is nothing but a burden — she relies on Simon for practically everything, spending most of her time with a bevy of men that she picks up and leaves with for days at a time. The co-dependent relationship between the two of them is further put to the test as Simon’s actions begin to receive unwarranted attention and he grows increasingly jealous of the attention that Louise gives to the other men in her life.
Klein’s performance matches his character in being far beyond his years, perhaps even eclipsing the brilliant work from the young Thomas Doret in that similarly told Dardenne picture, but the standout here has got to ultimately be Lea Seydoux. As a young woman struggling with the burdens of moral responsibility and a yearning desire to just be free and wild, there is always more working beneath her exterior than she lets on and when we finally begin to see her facade crack in the later stages, a character who started off quite unlikeable is quickly turned into one I felt great sympathy for.
There’s a whopper of a twist that I wasn’t expecting at all, but I felt it wasn’t utilized as well as it could have been; however, it does add a whole new level to Seydoux’s brilliant work here and makes you re-examine every stroke of her superb performance that came before it. Sister contains two physical fight scenes between Simon and Louise throughout the film, and in the contrast of them you can see the extensive rift that has grown between them over these events. At the beginning, they are playful and loving, rolling around on the floor while jokingly fighting each other for who can have the best sandwich that Simon stole. The later fight though, is violent and dirty, taking place in the filthy mud and featuring the two going at one other with an almost homicidal rage.
The relationship between the two characters at the center here is fascinatingly explored by Meier, but also impressive is the way that she inserts a subtext with the high/low nature of the setting. There’s a very distinct contrast between the clean, white and beautiful setting of the resort that Simon ascends to each morning and the bleak, muddy and ugly bottom of the hill he returns to every night. Not only does the opposing nature provide a look into the class distinction that Meier softly examines, but it also keys into the lost nature of these wandering figures, constantly striving for something more than the squalor they truly exist in. This all adds an impressive extra layer to Sister, while never becoming such a focus that it takes attention away from the true centerpiece which remains the study of this powerful relationship between a brother and sister.