'Sister': Children Living On The Fringe Of Society

Oct 4, 2012

The Swiss canton of Vallais isn't exactly South Central, but it does have a crime problem: His name is Simon, and he seems to have found the perfect racket. Sister's 12-year-old protagonist (Kacey Mottet Klein) steals skis, gear and clothing at an upscale mountain resort that's just a short tram ride above his bleak flatland apartment.

Not only is the ski lodge convenient, but it's frequented by people who are too rich to sweat the loss of their stuff. ("They'll just buy a new one," Simon explains to one of the townies who buy his purloined goods.)

Also, the resort is a place where obscuring one's identity isn't considered suspicious; everybody's wearing helmets, masks and balaclavas.

There are risks, of course, especially after Simon is identified as a thief by another larcenous resort regular — Mike, a Scottish kitchen worker. (He's played winningly by Martin Compston, who in Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen portrayed a teenage drug dealer every bit as driven as Simon.)

Mike turns out to be a laid-back type, unlike the young woman Simon calls his sister. Louise is uptight, irresponsible and unreliable; she's prone to quitting jobs, drinking too much and running off with men she'll soon be running away from. (She's played persuasively by Lea Seydoux, offering more evidence of her versatility after roles as an 18th-century servant in Farewell My Queen and a contemporary assassin in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.)

It's no wonder Simon has to serve as the family's bread-stealer. Or that he's anxious to make the acquaintance of an upscale British mom (Gillian Anderson) whose friendliness gives the boy the brief sensation of being mothered. Poignantly, he tries to buy her attention by paying for lunch.

The second feature by director and co-writer Ursula Meier, who grew up in a nearby region of France, Sister is more naturalistic than her feature film debut, Home. But it explores similar themes, including eccentric family dynamics and life on the margins of European society. Simon and Louise embody poverty and unhappiness in the midst of affluence and contentment.

Although Louise eventually becomes more central to the story, the focus remains on the character played by Klein (who also had a role in Home). In fact, Louise isn't mentioned in the film's original title, L'Enfant d'en haut — "the child from on high."

Sister's first half is less eventful and yet stronger. The early scenes, which sketch out Simon's character and technique, are terse but engrossing, with occasional flashes of humor. Klein portrays Simon as intensely restless, illustrating the young thief's instinct to keep moving and never get pinned in one place. Later, the script turns a little melodramatic, although Meier's tone remains clinical.

The movie was expertly photographed with handheld camera by Agnes Godard, who shot Home and many of Claire Denis' films. The crisp editing is by Nelly Quettier, another frequent Denis collaborator.

The minimalist synth-and-guitar score was composed and played by John Parish; the voice of his frequent musical partner, P.J. Harvey, enters for the end-credits song.

By then, the snow has melted, and Simon's season on high is over. Sister offers several reasons why the boy can't or won't return to ski-resort robbery next winter. But the movie also quietly suggests that, whatever he does, Simon will always be the boy from down below, boldly impersonating someone born to the heights.

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