(Adopt Films) Sometimes the decision to provide is made by those who don’t know any better. Those too immature to know that they are in over their head. The overzealous, yet unarguably romantic fools who wouldn’t think of handing their responsibilities back when their situation becomes a burden. Ursula Meier’s second feature film, Sister, is a heartbreaking character study that paints in bold, real strokes a picture of the frustration of duty vs. the spirit of freedom.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) in a rundown housing complex in the industrial plains beneath a luxury ski resort in the Swiss Alps. The narrative unfolds over an entire ski season where a diligent Simon joylessly plays the role of breadwinner for himself and his negligent and usually unemployed family member. Every day, he takes a cable car up the mountain to a better world and goes to work, stealing name brand ski equipment from rich tourists and hustling the like-new goods at a discount cost to the local kids in the destitute town below.
The first act of the film is spent showing Simon at work and truthfully depicting the guardian-esque instincts of his home life. The business-minded protagonist is known in his community as a provider, and the money he receives from grifted goods goes toward groceries, toiletries, and rent, so it becomes easy to justify his wrongdoings as an eccentric means of survival. Over the course of the winter season, Simon fashions a partnership with a British cook (Martin Compston) who enables the boy’s thieving way of life, finds steady clientele in the resort’s morally ambiguous ski instructors, and becomes fascinated with a vacationing mother (Gillian Anderson), claiming that his own non-existent parents are too busy for him so that he may engage her company for even a few moments longer.
The real driving force behind this story is the complex brother/sister relationship. Simon is resourceful, cunning, and struggles to make sure Louise is taken care of. Louise doesn’t seem to have any real skills, and this only highlights her selfish nature when she proclaims how stuck she feels in a life that there is seemingly no escape from. His role of authority figure quickly transitions into that of a jealous significant other when he becomes over-protective and controlling of Louise when she tries abandoning him to be in the company of men her own age. Both characters often show their resentment of each other, with Louise harping on the glaring mistakes of her past and Simon openly ridiculing her for being useless.
The story has two very different aesthetics over the course of the film. At the top of the mountain, Simon gets into character, slips on his stolen ski-mask, and is followed with close-up shots and hectic editing, inducing the authenticity and tension of a heist film. Simon survives by his own devices, relying on ingenuity and instincts, and his worker ant craft is brilliantly documented in all its stealthy glory. At the end of each day, the story settles into a cable car and leaves the magic of a manufactured wonderland of opportunity and imaginary status, heading down the mountain where the snow has melted and the housing buildings are dilapidated. The wide shots of desolate landscape at the base of the Swiss Alps combined with John Parish’s haunting score project Simon’s actual loneliness on full tilt. Simon’s many comings and goings between the two worlds divides the story into two very different energies and gives the film a genuine spirit of duality.
Sister is a story of a boy who wants to go up in the world, in every sense of the word. While the older Louise is often shot leaving Simon alone, making lateral movements and slowly detaching from the adept youngster, Simon puts on his work clothes each day and sits in the cable car as it carries him into the sky, away from his arduous home life. The story relies heavily on a theme of progression vs. regression and presents it literally and symbolically through the very different “up top” and “down below” settings that triumph at carrying the narrative. Ursula Meier gets the most out of her young actors with graceful performances that succeed at being both subtle and brutally honest. The director’s sophomore feature knows when to wait and embrace a pause, but usually stays in motion, like childhood leaving us behind.
For Fans Of: Home, The Kid with a Bike, The Sapphires
Why We Like It: Brutally honest family relationships, the dichotomy of different worlds and their effect on us, a fascinating tale of innocence lost and forced adulthood