Sven (Lars Eidinger) is already sick by the time his beloved, if slightly estranged twin sister Lisa (Nina Hoss) comes to take him home. An audacious actor hellbent on getting back to the stage after his leukemia diagnosis, Sven initially scans as the most formidable character in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s moving drama “My Little Sister,” but it’s Lisa who emerges as its fiery heart. Hoss and Eidinger easily slip into the twins’ close bond, with the actors adopting similar mannerisms and inflections, all the better to sell the sense that even the distance that has marked their adulthood is unable to crack what was forged in the womb. But can terminal illness? The answer is no, obviously, but Chuat and Reymond take their time unspooling a graceful drama that twists the tear-soaked conventions of the cancer drama into something raw and satisfying.
While Sven finds both solace and pain in holding tight to his professional dreams, Lisa long ago loosened her grip on hers. Sven is currently the more well-known (and, in some circles, arguably famous) of the pair, but not necessarily the most talented, and both of the twins are suffused with a major creative bent. Still weak from treatment, Sven is convinced that he’ll be ready to take the stage for a fresh spin on “Hamlet” after a brief respite with Lisa and her family in Switzerland (his worried comrades are less convinced), which only reminds Lisa how much her own theatrical pursuits have suffered in the face of life’s everyday demands. Lisa used to write plays for Sven, and everyone she runs into while toting her brother around Berlin and then her mountain home seems to have two settings: 1) grim-faced worry about Sven, 2) subtle digs at Lisa for the way her own life has turned out.
That includes their mother Kathy (Marthe Keller), who takes a slightly comedic, ditzy role and runs with it, digging up dark humor and hard truths in the process. Less interested in directly wounding Lisa is her own husband Martin (Jens Albinus), who is far more concerned with his work at a fancy Swiss boarding school than really plumbing the depths of his wife’s many emotions. Lisa gave up her own career to follow Martin to the school, and while she’s a part of its everyday operations, he’s clearly the one in charge (and when Martin gets offered a major contract extension, his lack of interest in discussing the pros and cons of it with his own wife speak volumes as to how he views their power balance). It’s a clever way to illuminate the film’s deepest, most timeless theme: life goes on, even when it’s falling apart.
Sven’s sarcastic personality — “Don’t come too close, I have cancer,” he half-jokes upon seeing a friend after his first round of treatment has concluded — turns toward abrasiveness as the weeks wind on, his convalescence less about healing and more about surviving until the next round of care. The jokes wound Lisa, prick at Martin, and threaten to upend the pair’s kids, who understandably love their crazy uncle, even as they can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. (Of note: Sven’s slow slide into worsening health is aided by subtle makeup and costume choices that scan as real, never just “sallow” or “baggy” simply to sell the point of his ill state.)
Hoss’ growing grief is palpable but never over the top, as she becomes the character most keenly attuned to the possibility that Sven really might not survive and that she must still find a way to move forward with her life, even as the worst possible thing lingers in every moment. Even in moments when Lisa is expected to explode in the most cliched of ways — moments in which yelling, screaming, crying, and falling down sobbing are all part of the cinematic language of the “cancer drama” — Hoss opts for the more restrained, more refined choice. The result is miles more powerful, and far more real than other films of its ilk.
The pair soon dedicate themselves to a last-ditch creative idea — one that centers on a close pair of siblings pulling their way through darkness, naturally — which draws them even closer together, risking another trauma that begins to play out in the margins of Lisa and Martin’s marriage. It’s a big, silly idea, but one that Chuat and Reymond sell with absolute sincerity, and one made honest by Hoss and Eidinger’s wondrous restraint in dealing with it. While other sequences are less graceful, from an ill-fated excursion that Martin and Sven undertake to a last-act metaphor that Lisa is forced to make awkwardly literal, “My Little Sister” regains its footing in its final scenes, eschewing the expected for the raw emotion of real life.
“My Little Sister” premiered in Competition at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.