Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

After debuting with the extraordinary Home (2008), a surreal freeway collision of domestic stasis and global mobility, it seemed that the only way for Ursuala Meier was up – and so, in her second feature Sister (aka L'enfant d'en haut), she takes us up a mountain (and then back down to earth) in a repeating funicular ride from high privilege to underclass.

The setting is a Swiss skiing resort, where twelve-year-old Simon (Home's Kacey Mottet Klein) purloins wealthy holidaymakers' clothes and equipment, to resell to local children and passers-by in the valley below, where he lives. His criminality is born out of desperation – for in the absence of any responsible parents, it is left entirely to Simon to put food on the table for himself and older, feckless Louise (Léa Seydoux) – the 'sister' of the film's English-language title.

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In this precarious hand-to-mouth existence, Simon is certainly resilient and resourceful, but he craves stability and love – things which Louise repeatedly withholds, even if she can never quite bring herself to leave him. Simon clings to her, ignoring every rejection and meeting her every unreasonable demand, all in a vain search for affection – and when he is off the estate and back up the mountain, he naturally attaches himself to the well-to-do mother Kristin (Gillian Anderson), vacationing with her own sons, and the somewhat more likely father figure Mike (Martin Compston), working in the resort's kitchens – but winter season is soon to end and Simon's high-risk crimewave cannot go on forever.

Sister is essentially Upstairs Downstairs on a ski slope, exploring the socioeconomic divide separating the higher ups from the lower downs and the leisured classes from the invisible workers who serve them – with Simon gliding between these two worlds on pilfered skis and borrowed time. Yet the story's principal focus on Simon's relationship with Louise is also where the film gets stuck, caught in a repeat pattern of domestic dysfunction that no shocking (if unnecessary) twist can prevent from going round in circles.

It is a well-observed portrait of the family ties that bind, but with insufficient narrative development to justify its length, making Sister feel more like an overextended short than the full-blown Dardennes-style feature to which it aspires. Still, this is a film with a strong sense of place, and some very compelling performances from the two leads. It would be good, though, if Meier could rediscover the unhinged eccentricity of her first film and bring it back home.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2012
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A snapshot of life for a 12-year-old, who steals from the rich at a local ski resort to support him and his sister.
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Director: Ursula Meier

Starring: Léa Seydoux, Gillian Anderson, Martin Compston, Johan Libéreau, Jean-François Stévenin, Kacey Mottet Klein, Yann Trégouët, Magne-Håvard Brekke

Year: 2012

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Switzerland, France


BIFF 2012
London 2012

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