For scrawny 12-year old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), life is up and down. Going up, however, does not mean moving up the ladder of success but only riding a cable car to do his “work” at the top of a mountain ski resort, a playground for wealthy tourists. Ursula Meier’s heartbreaking Sister, Switzerland’s submission for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, is built around the continual movement of the cable car, moving up to the white wonderland of the glittering slopes, and down to the crumbling housing projects that look out on a desolate and muddy industrial plain. Like the marginalized poor in America, Simon is an unnoticed presence.
He is a crafty entrepreneur whose work consists of stealing skis, gloves, goggles; sneaking in and out of locker rooms, emptying coat pockets and grabbing sandwiches and anything else he can from knapsacks to bring home to his older sister Louise (Lea Seydoux), a lay about in her early twenties who cannot hold a steady job and goes from one boyfriend to another. For Simon, a sled is not a fun ride in the snow but a means to stay alive, a tool to strap stolen skis and drag them down below to restore and repair so he can sell them to the highest bidder. Simon, of course, rationalizes his actions by saying, “They don’t miss them. They just go and buy new ones.”
Supported by a solid script by the director and Antoine Jacquod and the striking cinematography of Agnés Godard (“Beau Travail,” “The Dreamlife of Angels“), Sister takes place during the ski season from Christmas to Easter, as the camera peeks behind the glamour. When Simon is caught in the act of stealing by seasonal worker, Mike (Martin Compston), a friendly Scot, Mike automatically assumes that he’s stealing to buy more hi-tech gadgets. Taken aback when he learns that the boy is stealing to buy food, toilet paper, and other necessities to keep him and his sister alive, he joins with him in his questionable activities.
The early sequences have a bounce and energy that makes it feel as if the film may be moving in a comic direction, but comic it is not. This becomes very apparent in the film’s second half when another (somewhat strained) dimension is added to our knowledge of Simon’s love-hate bond with his sister, and we watch helplessly as their interaction changes from playful to a no holds barred display of anger and frustration. While some may see Simon as a criminal in training, Klein makes him lovable enough for us to view him as a confused little boy, desperate for affection, at times acting like an adult and at times a forlorn child. We know instinctively, however, that unless there is some sort of intervention, the path Simon is on will lead to a dead end.
Unfortunately, however, there are no parents (foster or otherwise), no social workers, no schools or teachers in sight, not even police around to put up a stop sign. People walk by him as they pass by the homeless every day in the streets of most big cities, looking away, thinking “how sad.” Nominated for Most Promising Actor at the 2013 César Awards, Kacey Klein’s natural performance is one of remarkable depth and understanding. He does not emote or think the role, he lives in it and we are drawn into his life and experience his loneliness as our own. Also remarkable is Lea Seydoux who brings the irresponsible but ultimately sympathetic Louise to life.
Based on Meier’s memories of growing up near a ski resort near Geneva, Switzerland and her recollection of a little boy who was known as a thief, Sister is a devastating look at the result when an unwanted child is brought into the world. We discover how truly alone Simon is in scenes where he has to pay Louise to give him a hug, and when his neediness pushes him to cling to the mother of two boys (Gillian Anderson) who buys him lunch at the resort. If, as Victor Hugo said, “Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved,” Meier makes it evident that growing up in a world without love, even the most skillful and resilient child cannot fill the gaping hole it leaves.