Homelessness, aimlessness, and a life of crime? Those things are not so fun. And yet because of them, Sister, starring Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux, and Gillian Anderson (whose ridiculously delayed aging process has got me simultaneously jealous and impressed), is uncommonly affecting. It’s a sad world out there for countless kids, and Sister captures that quite well.
The movie, directed and co-written by Ursula Meier, spends its time with 12-year-old Simon (Klein), a scrawny, scrappy thief who lives in a scummy apartment under a high-class ski resort. He looks up and sees the higher classes at their costly play; what could be more crushing than that? So he collects money from the fellow poor, bottom-of-the-hill kids every morning, takes the lift up to the top, and steals basically anything he can get his hands on. He digs holes in the snow to stash the skis he swipes. He stuffs goggles, gloves, and helmets into his backpack or in his coat. And then his nights are spent cleaning up the stuff and figuring out how to sell it, so he can make some quick cash.
Simon isn’t totally alone, but he might as well be—because Louise (Seydoux), his older sister, is kind of useless. Seemingly a few years older than Simon, with a worn-down kind of beauty, Louise can’t seem to keep a job very long, bouncing from gig to gig—just as she seems to bounce from guy to guy. None of them seem to treat her very well, but she disappears for days on end regardless, sometimes coming home with bruises or black eyes. So Simon buys all the food, gives her a little money, and covets the red BMW owned by Louise’s new boyfriend, a symbol of wealth and status in jarring contrast with their messy apartment and mostly possession-less lives.
So every day for Simon is pretty much the same: Go up to the slopes, steal some stuff, come back down, sleep a little, stuff ears with the ends of cigarettes to keep from hearing Louise having sex with her boyfriend, get up the next day, do it all over again. But as much as Simon seems to be coasting by—even getting a waiter at the ski resort to buy stolen items from him directly, providing a more steady source of income—things start going wrong. His relationship with Louise seems to be unraveling. His infatuation with the rich resort attendee Kristin (Anderson), who has two sons about his own age, doesn’t seem like the healthiest thing. And, worst of all, he starts catching the attention of his marks, and they begin noticing when he swipes things. Without being able to steal, who is Simon? Does the boy have an identity outside of being a thief?
What Meier does exceptionally well is create characters whom are simultaneously sympathetic and kind of detestable, and as a result feel more real than you would expect. Klein effectively captures the resentment, pain, and defensiveness bristling in Simon, a kid who seems to have the right kind of intentions in protecting Louise but clearly isn’t going about it the right way. And Seydoux uses her fragile beauty as an advantage here, veering between her dual identities as a responsibility-rejecting mess and someone struggling to make her life better. Bad choices and incorrect decisions abound, but it’s not hard to see why Simon and Louise make them. Few other opportunities exist.
Aside from the strong performances, there’s beautiful, saddening cinematography, too—as Simon goes up the lift into another world, then down again into his personal kind of hell—and a significant sense of realism. The movie dips briefly into some clichéd material with an emotional reveal around the middle of the narrative, but rebounds nicely with some unsettling displays of power. Simon may have all the cash in comparison with Louise at the bottom of the hill, but he’s on the lower rungs of the food chain when he goes up to the ski resort, a place he can never belong. Those haunting images of him riding that lift, the sense that we’re watching a life that can never escape its own meaninglessness, are what will stay with you after Sister.