The mountains loom so very large and the child looks so very small in “Sister,” a cool yet compassionate look at two people bound by love and shared struggles in a world of haves and have-nots. Directed by Ursula Meier, it turns on a 12-year-old, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein, a heartbreaker), a cunning survivalist hustling to fill his belly and that of his lovely, troubled, perennially underemployed older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux). These are the world’s invisible, forgotten ones, slipping through the shadows and moving along the margins.
Trading the cooler, more emotionally detached style and vibe that characterized “Home,” her debut feature, about a family falling apart, Meier quietly goes for the emotional jugular in “Sister.” It’s an often touching, sometimes funny story about a pair of castaways and the moral awakening that brings them together. It shows Meier under the influence of the Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. (Even “Sister,” the English-language title of the movie, which was originally called “L’Enfant d’en Haut” or “The Child From Above,” evokes Dardenne films like “L’Enfant” and “The Son.”)
Gracefully, she oscillates between visual, narrative and real-world extremes – the big and the little, the rich and the poor, the grand and the base – to build a story that is simultaneously personal and political, intimate and bigger than any one life.
Meier, keeping exposition to a minimum – the siblings’ story emerges in conversational snippets – concentrates much of her early narrative energies on establishing a persuasive sense of place, both with the dreary apartment where Simon and Louise live and the luxurious ski resort where he ekes out a living. (Meier was born in Besançon, a French city near the Jura mountains and Swiss border.)
There, amid the soaring peaks and laughing resort-goers whose wealth makes them the nominal gods of this holiday Valhalla, Simon makes his way from coat pocket to backpack, emptying them of money, gear and food he and Louise gobble down. Every so often sullen Louise runs off, sometimes with a man, leaving Simon to fend for himself.
In between these minor raids Simon also walks off with expensive skis that have been nonchalantly set aside by their owners and which he later sells. No one notices him, because he looks so innocuous and because he constantly changes his wardrobe with newly pilfered items. As the camera tags alongside Simon, often at or near his height – the cinematographer is Agnès Godard, Claire Denis’s longtime collaborator – it becomes evident that the skiers also don’t see him stealing because they’re cosseted by privilege and all that it brings, including a to-the-resort-born sense of entitlement. When one (Gillian Anderson, identified as the English Lady) does notice him, it rocks his world.
Their meeting beautifully shows how Meier can turn the simple into the complex, filling a small exchange with reverberant meaning. Simon meets the English Lady, a resort guest, when she sees him loitering at a restaurant and invites him to join her and her children. They talk, with him easily gilding the truth, and then he tries to pay for their food. Surprised, she declines his offer. He insists, she resists, and the push and pull between them grows agonizing because in this one instance you see a lonely child’s yearning for home, family, mother, love.
Here the act of one person noticing another – of looking at another human being instead of through him – is a simple kindness and a heartbreaking expression of our dependence on others.