Director Ursula Meier’s Sister is a penetrating study of familial bonds, quietly devastating in parts, beautiful on whole and destined to make you fall in love with a practiced and entirely amoral preteen thief. It’s Switzerland’s submission for Academy consideration for best foreign language film and deserves to make the final cut for nominees.
The thief in question is Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein). He’s 12 years old, and lives with his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux of Farewell, My Queen), a scruffy Kate Moss look-a-like whose passivity extends to everything except partying and getting into cars with louts. But she’s all Simon has—they never discuss their absent parents—and his thievery is motivated by his hunger for food and his sister’s attention
(READ: TIME’s Richard Corliss on the nominees for the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign film)
He spends his winter days clomping around a Swiss ski resort in ski boots that don’t fit, browsing the sets of skis sticking out of the snow while their owners eat, drink or go to the bathroom. When Simon sees a pair he likes, or that one of his regular customers has expressed a desire for, he swipes them, stashing them in various hiding places like a squirrel would nuts. He also has a fondness for knapsacks stuffed with sandwiches, ski goggles and warm winter gloves; what he doesn’t eat for lunch or dinner goes right onto the black market. Every afternoon he returns to the valley, to the tower apartment he shares with Louise (when she’s not otherwise occupied) with a sled piled high with booty. A little boy’s toy being used for a big boy’s game.
The kid is a genius. He paid for a season pass and this cornucopia of merchandise is now his for the taking. Where do people feel more free, relaxed and confident than at a ski resort? Skiing promotes it, first in the physical exhilaration of sailing down a slope and then the mental charge that comes from conquering a mountainside wearing fancy sticks. The privileged assumption is that everyone who has paid the hefty price of admission is part of the same club; why would skis stuck in a snowbank be vulnerable in this place that makes you (okay, a decent skier) feel invulnerable? And clever Simon speaks the language of vacationers. “Did you enjoy the snow today?” he asks the rare person who takes notice of him, his English halting but unfailingly polite.
He tries out that line to good effect on a yummy English mummy (Gillian Anderson, whose increasing beauty suggests she struck a deal with aliens to get better looking with age) on holiday with her two little boys. Simon’s clumsy attempts to reach out to this maternal ideal, courtly and desperate all at the same time, expose how much of a motherless little boy he really is. He’d never let on about it though, since he’s so busy playing the tough guy. Late in the movie Simon tells the resort cook (Martin Compston) who becomes his black market middleman that his mother and father died in a car accident. “Boom,” he says, demonstrating the collision with his hands, as if it were kind of cool. Other than the urchins down in the valley, who worship Simon, the key characters in Sister wouldn’t fill up one of the gondolas Simon rides up to and down from the ritzy resort (never has economic disparity been so neatly illustrated by a character’s mode of transportation).
That’s because the focus of the film is the relationship between Louise and Simon, which is far more fraught and significant than it initially seems. In the early part of the movie, Louise is barely around. Simon is crushingly conscious of her absence—at Christmas even. But Meier, who co-wrote the screenplay with Antoine Jaccoud and Gilles Taurand, leads us on such an engaging tour of his solitary life that we hardly care. We’re busy admiring Simon’s enterprise and bravery and trying to decide whether we hope he does or doesn’t get caught. If he does, there might be some hope that he’ll be saved, although in this child’s hunched gait there hovers a ghost, the serious criminal he’s sure to turn out to be.
Mottet Klein, who is 14 now (he would have been Simon’s age while filming), gives an utterly assured performance. He draws the eye even when he’s doing nothing more than snapping off the filters from a cigarette and turning them into ear plugs when sis comes home with a date. Maybe he picked up some of the Serge Gainsbourg cool playing the singer as a child in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. (He also starred in Meier’s last film, 2008’s Home.) He and Seydoux are well cast; from some angles they do look like siblings. Seydoux is likely best known to American art house audiences from Midnight in Parisbut she was barely recognizable as the French girl who won Owen Wilson’s heart. Here she’s wary, an alley cat looking for dinner, eyes puffy from last night’s fight.
(READ: TIME’s review of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
Both she and Simon are feral, essentially, and on the most primitive level, blameless. Shun anyone who spoils this movie for you, but eventually it becomes clear how important Louise is in Meier’s narrative and why. Sister, which goes by L’enfant d’en Haut, (Child from Above) in Europe, takes on unexpected dimensions. It reveals something fresh about the difference between types of family bonds and ensuing expectations for them and in doing so, evolves into something far more universal than a portrait of a young con artist. Catch this thief, opening in limited release this week, if you can.
READ: TIME’s review of Midnight in Paris