“Why do you steal?” an angry chef demands of Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), the 12-year-old boy he finds stashing pilfered ski equipment in the restaurant’s storeroom. Disquietingly unfazed, Simon shrugs: “I don’t know. To buy things.” Mistaken for a greedy, thrill-seeking pre-adolescent, the boy is forced to elaborate: he has no parents, only a sister, and his profits are used to buy necessities. Scorn may give way to momentary solicitude, but Sister is by no means a tenderhearted morality tale. Set amidst the imposing Swiss Alps, this sure-footed sophomore feature from writer-director Ursula Meier offers a raw, sobering look at the life of a child whose need for affection is as crucial to his survival as the stale stolen sandwiches that constitute his sporadic meals.
Simon lives with his itinerant older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux), in an unkempt apartment at the base of a world-class ski resort. A languorous 360-degree pan of their concrete building stresses just how alone the two really are in this slushy no-man’s-land. Without even a hint of a community to lean on, Simon and Louise are prematurely world-weary and their relationship alternates between tenderness and frigidity. Maturely nuanced rather than puppy-eyed, Klein has grown significantly in height and talent in the four years since Meier’s 2008 debut, Home, and Seydoux, French It-girl of the moment, is effectively transformed from Midnight in Paris’s record-shop reverie into damaged goods with enigmatic faraway eyes. Frustrated by menial jobs, Louise disappears for days at a time with a series of less-than-gentlemanly callers, appointing Simon as primary breadwinner (and oftentimes caregiver). Too young to find legitimate work, Simon relies on his sticky fingers to survive.
Geography is central to Meier’s story construction, as it was in a slightly more obvious way in the high-concept Home, in which a family lives a deliberately isolationist existence on the edge of an uncompleted highway. Without the means to conquer the alpine topography—or even use it recreationally—the otherwise stunning vistas appear ominous, harsh, and barren, trapping the characters within the inescapable repetition of their daily routines. The ski lift that transports Simon to “work” each day over the pristine white wonderland makes literal the divide between the neglected child and the well-bred sybarites he steals from.
For the most part, the self-sufficient boy handles himself with a stoic sense of assurance, but there are moments when his grown-up shell melts away to reveal the extent of his emotional anemia. Wantonly marking an attentive mother on the slopes (played by Gillian Anderson), he makes a habit of coincidentally running into her and her cubs, basking in the refracted maternal glow.
Child-centered films often risk overdetermination and over-romanticization, but Sister artfully dodges all things maudlin due in large part to its reserved aesthetic. Meier’s camera is detached and observational, and though it follows in a long line of orphan narratives, her decidedly cool brand of thoroughgoing realism prevents Sister from feeling derivative. It is also what makes certain scenes especially hard to digest. With no Dickensian benefactor to save the day and no atmospheric trappings of yesteryear to distract, there is only the here and now, the painfully tangible and unadornedly contemporary.
The melting snow marks the end of the ski season; the chair lifts come to a screeching halt, the chefs migrate to other restaurants, and the powder-worshipping patrons summer elsewhere. Simon and Louise are stuck in the same place with nothing but each other, and the film’s open-ended final shot leaves a heavy weight that lingers beyond the abrupt fade to black.