Sister | reviews, news & interviews
Ursula Meier's crisp ski resort drama introduces an endearing young thief
A tale of life at the foot of the slopes, French-Swiss director Ursula Meier’s follow-up to her likeably askew debut Home finds her once again zeroing in on an unusual domestic set-up. This time the focus is on a dysfunctional family, perilously pared down to just a 12-year-old boy and his irresponsible adult sister, who are scraping by on the money generated by the youngster’s gift for theft. The winner of the Silver Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, Sister (French title: L’enfant d’en haut) features an extraordinary young performer at its heart and an international cast which includes Gillian Anderson and Martin Compston.
It’s set in Le Valais, a French-speaking part of Switzerland where the very geography of the place mirrors the social divide: the mountain ranges provide a seasonal home to affluent skiers, who blissfully ignore those who live in poverty below. Home’s Kacey Mottet Klein plays 12-year-old Simon who supports himself and his indolent older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux – Mysteries of Lisbon, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) by stealing ski equipment from tourists. Simon is a wonderkid wheeler-dealer, a pocket-sized spiv, each day heading industriously out to the slopes to snatch high-end sporting goods and then selling them on to those who work and play at the resort.
He’s a capable, perversely sensible little character – a crafty imp who’s bypassed childhood to become the breadwinner. Along with ski equipment he rather sweetly steals sandwiches for tea. When Simon is asked whether he spends the profits on appropriately childish things such as toys, he instead lists daily essentials – illustrating that he’s stealing out of necessity not greed. He’s venerated by younger boys, including Marcus (Gabin Lefebvre, pictured above right with Mottet Klein), who becomes his protégé. It’s easy to forget just how young Simon is and, on the rare occasions where we see his vulnerability exposed, it’s all the more upsetting. At one point he’s savagely beaten by an adult tourist (Magne-Håvard Brekke), who justifies his actions by branding the boy a thief.
Simon’s sister Louise is infuriatingly reckless and self-absorbed, and described cruelly by the other boys as a “whore”. She disappears for long stretches, fraternises with unsavoury characters and shamelessly accepts Simon’s handouts, fully aware of what he has to do to come by the cash. By contrast, Simon meets Kristin (Anderson, pictured below left with Klein), a glamorous middle-aged woman with two young children who becomes his fantasy mother figure. He also befriends the less savoury but ultimately affable Mike (Compston), a member of the resort’s kitchen staff who buys his stolen goods.
Simon is based loosely on a real boy from a ski resort Meier frequented as a kid and the film as a whole is inspired by such stories as Charles Perrault’s "Le Petit Poucet" (Hop-o’-My-Thumb, or Little Thumbling), where a wise young boy uses his ingenuity and skill as a thief to care for himself and his brothers, falling foul of a giant in the process. Speaking of giants, Sister is not entirely dissimilar to Bouli Lanner’s recent film The Giants which also takes the shape of a realist fairytale and shows a trio of kids fending for themselves off the radar of the authorities.
Sister references Meier’s first film. In Home a family’s countryside idyll turns nightmarish when a newly opened highway tears through the tranquillity. In Sister the siblings’ anomalous tower block represents poverty amidst the picturesque, planted as it is in the playground of the ultra-rich. In an attempt to impress Kristin, Simon also poses as a more affluent boy “Julien”, the name of his previous character in Home. Mottet Klein builds considerably on the promise he demonstrated in that film, showing himself to be a remarkably assured performer and cultivating an utterly credible family dynamic with the equally impressive Seydoux.
Sister is a film of disarming naturalistic performances, striking simplicity, strong contrasts and contains a heartbreaking reveal. It’s more interested in those struggling down on the ground than those cavorting on the mountain tops, elevating their plight to the main attraction.
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