A young child is dressing in a bathroom stall. We can’t tell what he looks like, as he layers on shapeless winter clothing, and a neoprene mask hides all discernible features save for a pair of bright, knowing eyes. He goes through the pre-ski ritual, bundling up before braving the windy, snowy landscape of the mountain ahead. Except that this child isn’t dressing for a day of skiing, but rather a day of stealing. It isn’t until he lifts a backpack and a jacket, returning to the stall to sort through his loot, that his babyish face and soft, dirty blonde hair are revealed. This is the opening scene of “Sister,” the sophomore feature from Swiss director and co-writer Ursula Meier. The film, which won a Special Mention Silver Bear award at this year's Berlin Film Festival, examines the coming of age process, and the challenges that face us as we arrive at adulthood.
The thief is 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), who lives in an apartment building at the base of a Swiss ski resort with his older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux). Each morning, Simon dons his ski outfit and rides the public gondola to the resort’s base lodge where he nabs whatever gear he can from unsuspecting tourists and re-sells it at discounted prices to local skiers and the mountain’s seasonal staff. Despite Louise’s considerable age, she seems utterly incapable of caring for herself or her brother: she can’t maintain a job and is unable (or unwilling) to learn how to help Simon repackage the stolen ski gear. Instead of working, she disappears with a string of men for days at a time, returning to her brother when the boyfriend-of-the-week gets tired of her or she runs out of money. Looking at their reflections in a mirror, Simon asks his sister, “The day I’m bigger than you, what will you do?” Louise can only smile and ruffle his hair affectionately, anything to remind herself that he is, in fact, still smaller and that the time has not yet come to figure out what she must do.
His parents nowhere in sight, Louise unreliable and irresponsible, Simon’s illicit endeavors are a necessity, rather than a series of childish pranks: with the money he makes, the siblings can continue to get by. He’s caught in the act soon enough, but the man who nabs him wants in on the bargain, gaining Simon a partner – and, eventually a friend and older-brother-type – in the cheeky Scottish cook, Mike (Martin Compston). Later on, when Simon meets Kristin (played with quite the convincing British accent by Gillian Anderson), a Louise look-alike skiing with her two young children, he cottons on to her immediately as well. And so he builds a new kind of family, a family culled from the mountain.
Meier, along with co-writer Antoine Jaccoud, has created a mesmerizing and believable world for the complex and intriguing lead characters to inhabit. What begins as a lighthearted slice-of-life film transforms into a much darker, much deeper character exploration after a sudden twist in the storyline. And despite their youth, both Klein and Seydoux are absolutely wonderful actors. They bring light and energy to the screen in the brightest moments, but manage the darkness and heartbreak in the film’s latter half equally well. Klein, in particular, takes his role on with enthusiasm and aplomb. Playing a character that is both a child and a caretaker, Klein makes us believe that he’s in way over his head while also convincing us that he can take care of everything. The push-pull between Simon’s current child self and the adult he’s becoming is heartbreaking, and Klein sells it on a silver platter.
“Sister” is as bleak and as beautiful as its snowy, mountainous setting. Amplified sound effects are favored over a score, mirroring the serenity of snow-covered mountaintop. When music is employed, the sound is haunting: bells and strings echo through vales and across plains, emphasizing their emptiness. Steady shots of the Swiss Alps, rising gigantically from a flat, frozen brown tundra, illustrate the world’s wildness and scale. The figure of Simon, pulling his grocery-laden sled across the cold plain, is dwarfed in comparison, his significance reconsidered in sight of the mountains’ powerful, unmoving faces. He may be king of the mountain as long as he can keep the goods coming, but there’s a whole world out there that Simon doesn’t know and that, more importantly, doesn’t know Simon. He isn’t a mountain, after all: he can’t remain stagnant forever.
“Sister” is thought-provoking and heartrending, a story of hope and hopelessness in equal measure, a commentary on growing up and learning your place in the world. Simon has had to age too quickly, and his understanding of the huge, wild existence beyond the mountain he calls home remains too limited. Kristin and Mike can perhaps serve as entrées to something more, but Simon’s attraction to a life of thievery, and to his life with Louise, will be tested by this potential: the life he knows may be too much to give up for the one he doesn’t. [A]