Despite being set amidst the beauty of the Swiss Alps in the peak of the winter season, director Ursula Meier’s sophomore film Sister is an austere study of dysfunctional familial relations, the widening gap between rich and poor and the implications for those anchored to the bottom of this economic divide. Possessing a somewhat incongruous title for the Australian release – the original French title of L’enfant d’en Haut translates to Child from Above – the film is a bleak and seemingly realistic drama that, whilst not necessarily ‘entertaining’, is utterly compelling.
Simon (Kacey Mott Klein) is a 12-year-old who spends his days lurking around a Swiss ski resort, stealing skis and equipment that he subsequently sells to clueless tourists, resort workers or the other kids who inhabit the town at the bottom of the mountains where Simon lives with his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux). Despite the illegality of his deeds – which also includes taking food from backpacks – it is easy to admire the tenacity and work ethic of Simon as he travels to the resort via cable car every morning and spends his day working hard to procure whatever he can, often from right under the noses of those who are far removed from Simon’s hardscrabble existence from which his earnings are often the only source of income for him and the 20-something Louise. At the end of each day, Simon returns home with his bounty and, more often than not, is greeted by an empty apartment with Louise much more focussed on partying or the latest in a series of boyfriends.
As a child, Simon is able to traipse around the resort virtually unnoticed and is generally untroubled in acquiring any item he likes, or that one of his regular customers has expressly requested. However, when he joins forces with Scottish kitchen worker Mike (Martin Compston), Simon ups the ante in his pilfering as the pair enter into a partnership that initially proves a boon for Simon’s profits but also increases the risk. Desperate for connection, Simon also strikes up a friendship of sorts with Kristin Jansen (Gillian Anderson), a mother-of-two who is renting one of the chalets at the resort. Meanwhile, the passive Louise seems clueless about her responsibilities to Simon and, when the seed of her resentment is revealed, liking her becomes almost impossible.
There is a startling disparity between the life of the resort and the stark, muddy reality of the town in which Simon and Louise occupy a small apartment in a nondescript tower block. The spectacle of the snowy Alps and those frolicking upon them, captured beautifully by cinematographer Agnes Goddard, makes everything at the bottom of the mountain seem utterly drab and devoid of life. So, what of their parents? Simon tells Kristin that they run a luxury hotel, but tells Mike they were killed in a car crash. What are we supposed to believe? Why is Simon forced to live with a sister who seemingly doesn’t want him around? These questions are answered as the story unfolds.
Klein is fantastic as Simon, whose bravado and maturity masks a vulnerability that makes him so easy to like. Given that he is in almost every scene, it is a remarkable turn from the young actor who also starred for Meier in her debut feature Home. Although playing the villain of the piece, Seydoux’s performance is equally impressive and she seems well on the road to stardom following roles in the likes of Midnight in Paris, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Farewell My Queen and the upcoming controversy-shrouded Blue is the Warmest Colour. Meier has adopted an observational approach – akin to the work of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers – and, as Switzerland’s submission for Academy Award consideration as Best Foreign Language Film, it is hard to imagine that it won’t make the final cut for nominees.