Directed by Ursula Meier
Written by Antoine Jaccoud and Ursula Meier
If acting is difficult for adults, the task may be roughest and most challenging for children. Some children have a naturally showy personality, an overly precocious sensibility that is, depending on your attitude, immensely endearing or obnoxious. But capturing what it’s actually like to be a kid mired in consistent desperation without feeling crass can be nearly impossible. In the new Swiss film Sister, co-writer and director Ursula Meier lucked out in casting Kacey Mottet Klein as the fierce, intelligent, but lost lead of a story about being at the end of one’s rope and trying to pretend otherwise.
Klein is Simon, the 12-year old brother of Louise (Léa Seydoux, most recognizable to American audiences for her work in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol); they live together in a small apartment near a fancy Swiss ski resort, scrounging whatever cash they can on a daily basis. As the film opens, Simon is already hard at work at the resort, stealing whatever equipment he can and reselling it in the nearby village. He uses that money to help himself and Louise make it through the long winter, as she jumps from job to job, and boyfriend to boyfriend. After Simon befriends a scrappy cook (Martin Compston), he gets closer to ruining his tenuous if adventurous lifestyle by stretching himself too thin and taking too many risks.
Sister is the work of a very adept filmmaker, someone who knows just how and when to twist the emotional knife. Meier, who co-wrote the film with Antoine Jaccoud, almost fools the audience in the first hour, presenting Simon and Louise’s frozen tundra of a world as something close to idyllic. Though Simon is nearly a modern-day Artful Dodger, picking pockets whenever he can and skating by on his raffish charm, we’re lulled into a sense of complacency about this being a world worth surviving in. And then the script drops the other shoe, in a surprise that turns the final 30 minutes on its ear. You may watch that first hour and wonder what’s going to happen—something has to occur to truly throw Simon and Louise into upheaval—and when it comes out, it’s not, perhaps, a huge shock, but it’s emotionally devastating anyway. Both Klein and Seydoux always act as if they’re hiding some big secret, which isn’t a failure of the performances, mind you; it’s a sign of how their characters are unable to fully commit to denying themselves the truth.
Outside of Klein and Seydoux, both of whom look progressively weathered as the story unfolds, the star of Sister is the cinematography, by frequent Claire Denis collaborator Agnès Godard. Godard envelops us in this icy world, presenting a stark contrast between the ski resort, which literally hangs over the town, dwarfing it in stature and class structure. At its best, the camera can convey not just tone, but temperature. Godard and Meier don’t need to emphasize specific colors, nor throw in any weird stylistic flourishes. All they do is point the camera at the seemingly unending glacial vistas around the resort and town, creating an oppressively frigid atmosphere.
As the leads suffering in the wintry climes, Klein and Seydoux perfectly express the push-and-pull of fractured familial relationships. Klein, especially, is quite solid in a role that rarely asks him to go big. Even when he breaks down, Simon does so cautiously and carefully, not willing to reveal flaws or weaknesses. Still, Klein’s performance is incredibly empathetic; even when we watch him commit crimes blithely and blatantly, Simon deserves and receives a modicum of sympathy. Louise is an even more implacable character, who tries to soldier on without acknowledging the tightrope lifestyle she leads with her little brother. Among the other performers, Compston is the best, partly because he has enough screen time to make an impact. (Gillian Anderson of The X-Files also has a small, pivotal role, but is, frankly, slightly distracting.)
Sister is skillfully made, holding the audience at a distance until the right moment to drive us into a deeper sense of melancholy and depression. Simon, as portrayed by Kacey Mottet Klein, is such a forward-thinking little boy, unwilling and potentially unable to acknowledge the pain suffusing his life until he wants to punish the sister he tries to help out, that you’re almost blindsided by the film’s final act. Ursula Meier’s latest film is a painful yet vital slice-of-life story. Sister may be shamelessly manipulative, but it always works. Even if you can see the strings being pulled, this is a shockingly effective drama.
— Josh Spiegel