When it comes to stories of adult siblings, cinema tends to remain overwhelmingly gender-divided. Great films about brotherly love and sisterly strife (or, of course, vice versa) are plentiful, but tender brother-sister studies are a rarer breed. “My Little Sister,” then, is a welcome, warm-hearted addition to the ranks of “You Can Count on Me,” “The Savages” and various films that don’t star Laura Linney: a modestly scaled, intimately observed domestic drama that doesn’t reinvent any wheels in its portrayal of family frictions, midlife ennui and the anguish of terminal illness, but handles all this potentially sticky material with clear-eyed (and finally, when required, somewhat moist-eyed) grace. Not that you’d expect cheap sentiment with redoubtable stars Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as the siblings in question: In addition to bolstering its European distribution potential, their beautifully matched performances lend this quiet Swiss production a necessary bit of flint throughout.
“My Little Sister” is the second narrative film from writer-directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, and the first since 2010’s similarly intimate, unassuming “The Little Bedroom,” which was Switzerland’s official Oscar submission that year. (It would not be surprising to see their latest, boosted by its Berlinale competition slot, similarly selected.) Both working actors, the duo have also worked extensively in documentary over the last decade, and the new film feels the benefits of both those qualifications. This is bright, unaffected naturalism with a fluidly roving camera, but also a generous regard for its ensemble, as befits a film affectionately embedded in the Berlin theater scene.
The “little sister” in question is Lisa Nielsen (Hoss), a gifted playwright from Berlin who has largely shelved her artistic ambitions, following her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) to a lucrative but unfulfilling teaching job at an upper-crust boarding school in the Swiss ski resort of Leysin. She’s all of two minutes younger than her twin brother Sven (Eidinger), though they agree that those two minutes feel like a lot. A celebrated gay stage actor who has lived life a little larger than Lisa, he’s the dominant figure in what is nonetheless a mutually protective and collaborative relationship: She’s created roles for him in the past, though they haven’t been entirely in sync since she moved a country away and stopped writing.
But with Sven recently diagnosed with aggressive leukemia, Lisa is determined to make up for lost time and closeness — first through a bone marrow transplant that may or may save his life, but also with repeated attempts to rekindle his stalled acting career, firmer than anyone else in her conviction that he’ll survive stronger than ever. So she bypasses their well-meaning but less understanding mother Kathy (a lovely Marthe Keller, bringing notes of forlorn comedy to this family crisis) to stage-manage Sven’s recovery in Switzerland, a single-minded objective that allows her to set aside the plainly widening cracks in her marriage.
Hoss, a master in the fine art of playing women who lie to themselves, isn’t on her most intense or severe form here, instead finding in Lisa an apt balance of harried vulnerability and somewhat desperately determined hopefulness: her face set in a soft mask that occasionally cracks with little spasms of bulging-eyed exasperation, or surging fear of the worst. When she finally breaks down, in an exquisitely built and morosely funny scene, it’s to ineffectively smash a child’s scooter against a recycling bin: Sure enough, Lisa can write rage better than she can act it.
Eidinger, for his part, resists weepy cliché in his portrait of a cancer patient frankly too exhausted to rage against the dying of the light, but sorely piqued at his own body’s betrayal. Credit makeup artists Marc Hollenstein and Barbara Grundmann for not making Sven one of those gently pallid terminal disease victims you only see in the movies: Every inch of his physique looks aggravated and fragile, with Eidinger’s gnarled, slowed body language charting the rise and fall of his spirit. As twins, meanwhile, he and Hoss casually reflect each other’s tics and mannerisms while occasionally glancing at each other with an anxious blankness, as if having stumbled upon a glitch in their hitherto perfect mutual intuition.
Save for one briefly vertiginous paragliding scene that represents the film’s grandest cinematic gesture, Chuat and Reymond’s direction is delicate and unobtrusive, in tune with their calmly deep-digging actors. Musical cues are mostly tactful, with even the somewhat literal usage of the Brahms lied “Schwesterlein” (the film’s original German-language title, translating as “Little Sister”) fitting its character application. Resisting oppressively glum atmospherics as the situation darkens, DP Filip Zumbrunn seeks airy, lemony daylight throughout — nodding to a world getting on with things even when, for our put-upon siblings, the clock seems to stop.