Selected as Switzerland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards and in French with English subtitles, “Sister” is troubling and numbing, with strong performances from young actor Kacey Mottet Klein and French model-turned-actress Léa Seydoux and brisk, no-nonsense directing from Ursula Meier, who also wrote the story with Antoine Jaccoud. Meier doesn’t load too many frills into her directing style, but she does one thing exceptionally well: contrast the worlds her characters wander through and live in. One is beautiful and perfect white, the other dour and slushy grey. While watching the film, comparing them is always on your mind.
“Sister” focuses on Simon (Klein) and Louise (Seydoux, of “Mission – Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Midnight in Paris”), residents of a crummy apartment tower at the bottom of a hill that is home to a posh ski resort. About 12 years old, Simon is clearly the more in-charge one of the pair: every day he gets up, gathers money from the other poor kids who live at the bottom of the hill, and uses his pass to get up top, where he steals a variety of different things from the visitors to either distribute back among his peers or try to sell on his own. Gloves, goggles, masks, helmets, jackets, the skis themselves—he takes it all, and seems to be pretty slick at it. As he tells one of his friends, “Nobody cares up there; they just buy another.”
Simon is stealing so that he and Louise can eat and live; she lacks the same kind of initiative he does, bouncing through jobs and into relationships with not-so-nice guys (it’s not uncommon for her to get fired, disappear for days on end, or come home with a black eye)’ She looks barely a few years older than Simon, and he is simultaneously fiercely protective and undeniably resentful toward her. She’s bad with money, she’s irresponsible, she’s rarely home when she says she will be; “You get along fine anyway” is her only explanation for her constant leaving. When Louise asks him for money so she can go out with a new boyfriend, it’s an off-putting, pitiful power dynamic, with him holding the bills over his head as she pouts and waits for them. He who has the cash has the power, and although Louise is older and bigger, it’s clear the scrawny, not-quite-teenage boy wears the pants.
Neither of them is doing the right thing, but neither of them seems to know how—stunted growth and development possibly explained by what Simon tells a resort waiter, Mike (Martin Compston), who joins his stealing scheme. His parents died in a car crash, he tells the young man … but then again, he tells Kristin (Gillian Anderson, of “Johnny English Reborn”), a rich mother he spots on the slopes, that they run a classy hotel and that he’s an only child. So there are lies here, and so many that it’s hard to know how Simon keeps them all straight.
Well, until he can’t anymore—until the stresses caused by Louise and by their undeniably pathetic situation start taking the toll on Simon. He starts getting caught. Some people, like Mike, he can recruit into his scheme with part of the truth, the admission that he’s stealing to buy things like “food, toilet paper, milk, pasta”—not the “toys, DVDs, video games” that Mike initially suspects. But not everyone is OK with encouraging or participating in Simon’s theft, and it becomes clear that more people are taking advantage of the boy than trying to help him—and the ignorance and indifference of others, coupled with his own inability to come up with another way of life, may be his final downfall.
This narrative, of the little boy trying to defend the family he has while knowing it’s not the one he deserves, is a common one in the films of the Belgian Dardenne brothers, who made similar films “La Promesse” and “The Kid with a Bike.” Meier takes some clues from their book, and it’s not a bad thing—her script becomes imbued with a mixture of defensiveness and longing, traits that define Simon’s character.
In that role, Klein is stupendous. He veers between a sly, bargaining businessman and a desperate, lonely boy, smarting at Louise’s brush-offs (like when she tells a new boyfriend who comes over, “My brother’s staying here a while,” instead of admitting that he’s paramount to their survival) while also yearning for her approval and love. When he’s charging high prices for the stolen items to a locker room full of resort workers, he’s a little adult. When a wealthy patron catches him stealing and smacks him around, going overboard and bruising and bloodying his face, he’s a needy child. It’s an impressive performance from Klein, one that makes Simon’s pain quite resonant.
Equally good and playing off of him is Seydoux, who delivers her most demanding role yet. She’s appeared in actions films like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and period romances like “Midnight in Paris” before, but often as eye candy. Here she gets to really act, and her embodiment of Louise’s blasé attitude, dead eyes, and cynical, wasted sense of self are utterly appropriate for the role. When she walks away from Simon after he asks, “The day I’m bigger than you, what will you do?”, you know she wants to walk away forever. In a way, you don’t blame her.
What Meier does so masterfully with “Sister” is create an environment where you simultaneously feel for the characters but also recognize their shortcomings and wrongdoings—a world in which everyone seems quite real. Simple feelings like “love” and “hate” don’t apply to your reactions to Simon and Louise. They make us happy, they make us sad, they make us frustrated; in their interactions and decisions through “Sister,” they do everything you want characters to do. They’ll make you feel.