A poor boy from the valley down below robs the rich of their ski gear in the resorts up high in “Sister,” the impressive new pic from Franco-Swiss helmer Ursula Meier (“Home”). Far from a sociorealist morality tale about the lower class robbing those literally higher up, pic carves out its own unique niche by focusing squarely on the emotional needs of the 12-year-old protag and his titular sibling, who, though in her 20s, often seems to be less enterprising and responsible than her little thief of a brother. Francophone arthouse action is guaranteed and wider breakout not impossible.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein, “Home”) has a ski pass that gets him up the mountain, where in the piles of bags and parked ski equipment he forages for sandwiches to eat and any kind of item he can sell to the kids down in the valley. Together with his pretty but lazy sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux), he shares a dingy apartment. They need to look after themselves, with Simon, through his thieving, doing more to keep food on the table and money in their pockets than Louise, who’s unable to hold down a steady job but doesn’t seem to care.
Since he can’t legally work, stealing has in a way become Simon’s job, and like any profession, a good part of his self-worth derives from it, especially when it’s a job well done. His attitude toward stealing is summed up with this line, which he says with a shrug: “They are so rich they don’t care and they’ll just buy a new one.”
Back in Switzerland, where she shot her sport-themed TV feature “Strong Shoulders,” Meier is still as physical a filmmaker as always and with ace d.p. Agnes Godard here pays particular attention to the movements between the spotless snow paradise up high, where Simon passes himself off as one of the rich kids, and the plains down below, where the siblings’ reality literally looks more sludgy. At the bottom of the cable car that ferries Simon back and forth, he has a locker where he changes his clothes, and shots of him — and, later, Louise — in underwear become a visual leitmotif that suggests their vulnerability and need to protect themselves from the cold outside world.
Screenplay by Meier and Antoine Jaccoud, with input from Gilles Taurand, allows the needs of the characters to emerge organically, with Simon and Louise’s very different forms of immaturity and their uneasy interdependence feeding into Simon’s concrete desire to do something about their precarious situation. A gentle sprinkling of humor offsets the generally darker material. That said, pic does lean a little too heavily on a revealing twist and suffers from some subplots involving English-speaking outsiders that remain underdeveloped.
Seydoux is perfectly cast as the young woman who clearly cares for her little brother but who’s not mature enough to take things into her own hands. But the star of “Sister” is undoubtedly Mottet Klein (as the “child from up high” of the French title), for whom Meier specifically conceived the project. His combination of steadfast determination and confusion about where the boundaries in the adult world lie carry the film through to its perfect final shot.