An honest and bleak portrayal
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 19, 2012
The Swiss writer-director Ursula Meier made an enormously promising debut a few years ago with “Home,” a quirky drama starring Isabelle Huppert about a family of hold-outs living on the edge of society in Switzerland. Meier’s new film, “Sister,” homes in on similar themes having to do with marginalism and class differences, in a comparable setting of domestic disarray.
As “Sister” opens, a 12-year-old boy named Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) suits up in a heavy coat, face mask and tinted goggles -- whether he is going skiing or to rob a bank is unclear. The reality, it turns out, is a bit of both.
Simon is a petty thief, trolling a prosperous ski resort in the Swiss Alps, cadging the equipment its patrons casually leave stuck in the snow and selling it in his brutalist housing project far down the mountain. Meanwhile, Simon’s sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux), makes a desultory living cleaning chalets, although as her unsteady initial entrance makes clear, a string of bad choices makes her a far less dependable provider than her younger sibling.
A probing, intimate character study in resilience and toughness, “Sister” courts outright heartbreak when Simon makes the acquaintance of a wealthy resort patron played by Gillian Anderson; his compulsive cleaving to the security and warmth she exudes throws his perilous existence into even more painful relief. At the same time, he comes under the influence of an unscrupulous seasonal worker (Martin Compston), who proves to be yet one more unreliable adult in Simon’s woefully shaky world.
Like the Dardenne brothers, Meier has a knack for casting compelling child actors and putting them into stories of high, but never manipulative, emotional stakes. If the audience can see one pivotal plot twist from a mile away, Klein and Seydoux do an utterly convincing job of making it authentic.
Just as genuine is Meier’s refusal to make this bleak, unforgiving story warm or fuzzy. She’s as rigorous with ambiguity as she is with the honesty in portraying the life of a child at its most uncertain and vulnerable.
Contains profanity and adult themes. In French with English subtitles.