“SISTER” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 18 at the Tivoli)
97 minutes | No MPAA rating.
What is it about French movies and children?
In film after film the French give us bare-bones, soberly non-manipulative portraits of children at risk who end up quietly breaking our hearts.
“Sister” isn’t French, but it’s Swiss, and that’s close enough. Ursula Meier’s unforced character study was Switzerland’s nomination for this year’s foreign language Oscar (it didn’t make the cut to the final five).
In this lean narrative, we meet young Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) at a posh ski resort. Suited up for a downhill slalom and carrying a backpack and skis, this 12-year-old moves comfortably among the vacationing families and well-heeled snow bunnies (do they still call them that?), deftly picking out the most expensive equipment and walking off with it.
He hides these pilfered treasures beneath a building housing a restaurant and ski-lift machinery and, in mid-afternoon when the trams are empty, he descends the mountain to an ugly highrise apartment building where he resells his ill-gotten gains to the local kids. Sometimes he even stands beside a highway proffering his wares.
Simon lives with Louise (Lea Seydoux), whom he introduces as his older sister. Not that she takes care of him…quite the opposite, in fact.
It’s young Simon who provides the stability and most of their income. He puts stolen food on the table and delights in giving Louise special presents like form-fitting jeans and plush winter jackets. He’s almost like an attentive lover – in one sad/creepy scene he comes into her bedroom and begs to sleep (just sleep) with her. The kid doesn’t get much loving.
There’s not much plot to speak of. Mostly Meier’s camera follows Simon up the mountain each day. Once he’s caught stealing and takes a beating. He makes the acquaintance of a Scottish short order cook (Martin Compston) who agrees to help him fence his loot. Fagen-like, he takes on an even younger kid as his criminal apprentice. He makes the acquaintance of a vacationing rich British lady. (“The X-Files'” Gillian Anderson) and her kids.
Meier doesn’t tell us things. She shows us.
We learn about Simon and Louise by following them around.
Their environment says a lot…down on the valley floor where they live the winter snow has melted and all is muddy and drab. At higher altitudes, though, it’s still a magic snow-world populated with beautiful rich people.
“Sister” does have one whopper of a reveal that throws the Simon/Louise relationship into an entirely new and disturbing light.
Seydoux — Americans have seen her in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (as the shopowner Owen Wilson meets), the most recent “Mission: Impossible” (as a lady assassin) and “Farewell, My Queen” (as a servant at Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution) –- has one of those malleable faces that can make her look seductively beautiful or like a pouting child. That ambiguity is crucial to her performance.
But the real star here is young Master Klein, whose seemingly effortless performance gives “Sister” both heart and soul.
| Robert W. Butler