Simon, a young hero of “Sister”, is one of those resourceful poor kids we have seen before in other movies. He knows how to earn the money he needs, and he is very good at it. His town is near a ski resort in the Alps Mountains area where rich people come every winter season, so he goes up to the resort and steals many things including skis, sunglasses, helmets, and others he can sell. It is crime, but he does not think much about it: “They don’t miss them. They just go and buy new ones”
The movie closely observes this daily activity of Simon, played by a talented child actor Kacey Mottet Klein. First, he changes his clothes before he goes to the resort by cable car. While passing himself off as some rich kid at the resort with a pass card, he usually finds things to steal without being noticed by anyone(well, who can notice a little boy like him in the crowded place where everybody is busy with enjoying ski or working for customers?), and then he comes back to the town with a bag full of stolen things.
It seems that he has been doing this for a long time because he has already mastered his trade a lot(I wonder what he does during summer season). He knows how to make his ‘secondhand goods’ look like new ones(he can also do the opposite). He skillfully sells his stolen goods to his customers including his neighbourhood kids. When he is accidentally confronted by an English employee who is also taking advantage of the rich customers at the ski resort, he soon makes a deal with him for getting more money. It goes without saying that Simon is a criminal, but it is sort of darkly compelling to see how this little kid deftly moves around in the world literally on the top while hiding his true identity as a pilferer from the bottom. Artful Dodger would probably admire him.
The motive behind his criminal activities looks simple on the surface. He lives with his older sister Louise(Léa Seydoux), who is an immature young woman who cares more about having fun with her boyfriends than settling on a stable job to earn money for them. She just comes in and out of their home at a shabby apartment building, and it is mainly Simon’s job to take care of their home. Though she does not show much appreciation to her little brother, he is willing to give money to his sister whenever she needs it, and she gladly takes it and goes out as usual.
While the movie organically reveals how their dysfunctional relationship has been somehow working, we also begin to sense what Simon really wants from his sister. On one day, he sees what he has yearned for from one of the rich guests at the ski resort, a British woman named Kristin(Gillian Anderson). He is drawn to her warm kindness, so he approaches to her while hiding his identity(he lies to her that his parents are involved with hotel business).
The director/co-writer Ursula Meier made an impressive debut with “Home”(2008), the movie I enjoyed when I visited the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago for the first time in 2010. Like that film, “Sister” is an unconventional family drama, and it moves the story in a calm and cool pace while maintaining the faint uneasiness in the relationship between its main characters until a hidden fact is suddenly blurted out at one point. Thanks to the cinematographer Agnes Godard, the harsh world surrounding Simon and Louise is accentuated by a notable contrast between the snowy world of ski resort at the top and the mundane world of the town at the bottom. The class distinction is clearly shown in this contrast(I heard that its original French title is “L’enfant d’en haut”, which means “the child up from high” in English).
The movie depends on two fabulous performances at its center. Léa Seydoux, who was recently introduced to the international audiences as a pretty but lethal killer in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”(2011), gives a very good performance as an immature woman who still does not grow up unlike her responsible brother. She is mostly selfish while so accustomed to being supported by him, but she cares about him at times although she is not so good at giving or receiving love. At one point, she actually tries to help him, but she soon goes out when her latest boyfriend comes for her with his BMW.
Kacey Mottet Klein, who appeared in “Home” as Olivier Gourmet and Isabelle Huppert’s young son, is terrific as a kid struggling through his harsh environment while hiding his deep loneliness. There is a sad, poignant scene when Simon asks his sister whether he can sleep with her in bed if he gives her money, and Klein’s acting quietly suggests the desperate yearning which has been growing inside his character. Watching Kline in the movie, I was reminded of the unforgettable hero of Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop”(2007). Both of them are smart kids stuck with hard life, and they try to move on with admirable confidence by any means necessary. They are hardened through their struggles, but they are still kids with innocent hope, and they painfully come to learn that it is sometimes hard to fulfill dream in front of harsh reality even though they are determined.
Later in the story, the movie surprisingly reveals to us how much Simon and Louise are stuck with each other in their disjointed relationship – and it is more than we initially thought. “Sister” received Silver Berlin Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, and it deserves the award for the powerful moments it generates under its cool composure while never resorting to cheap sentimentalism. I thought the finale was rather abrupt, but now I feel that it is an appropriate and effective ending for the story – and it is a haunting one that will linger on your mind after the end credits roll.