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Once again tackling a family on the fringes of modern Western life, writer-director Ursula Meier delivers a solid sophomore effort with the coming of age dramedy, Sister(L’Enfant d’en haut). Set in and around a swanky resort in the Swiss Alps, this portrait of a crafty tweenage boy who steals ski equipment to support himself, as well as his troubled older sis (played by Gallic It girl Lea Seydoux), begins rather lightheartedly only to switch gears after a surprising second act twist. With a moving lead turn from youngster Kacey Mottet Klein and strong craft contributions from Claire Denis regulars Agnes Godard and Nelly Quettier, Sister could slalom around Euro territories all the way to select offshore theatres.
While her 2008 debut, Home, offered a tragic-comic take on progress and its discontents, the Franco-Swiss filmmaker sticks closer to realism this time around, combining an intimate family drama with a broader view on class differences and how they shape the way we grow up. Such intentions are immediately clear from the opening sequence, where 12-year-old Simon (Klein) cunningly lifts skis, masks and other sports gear from unsuspecting vacationers, lugging them all the way down the mountain to sell in the grim apartment building where he lives with his sister, Louise (Seydoux).
The idea of a ski thief is a clever one – who really keeps an eye on their stuff in such places? – and while they mine it for a few early laughs, Meier and returning co-writers Antoine Jaccoud and Gilles Taurand soon make it clear that for Simon, such a vocation is a necessity. With his parents nowhere in sight and Louise unable to hold down either a job or a steady boyfriend, he continues filching equipment from the resort and selling it down below, profiting off the busy Christmas season and finding an accomplice in a friendly Scottish cook (Martin Compston).
Much of the film’s first half focuses on Simon and his attempts to bring home the bacon, and Klein (who played the younger brother in Home) skillfully portrays a character who can be both extremely sly and disarmingly sensitive, especially when it comes to his relationship with Louise. Yet just when the narrative seems like it’s starting to turn in circles around the midway point, things take an unexpected turn – let’s just say that Chinatown comes to mind – which throws the whole story into a different domain and makes Simon’s struggle all the more touching.
Capturing the action with her trademark documentary-style eye, Godard uses a handheld camera to keep us forever at our young hero’s side, isolating him against the crowded carefree world of skiers on holiday, as well as the grimier underbelly of the workers who serve them. Editor Quettier keeps things tight for the most part, although the movie’s middle and closing sections seem to lag at a few points. Thankfully, a moody guitar score from P.J. Harvey producer John Parish helps keep things in line.
While the film belongs predominantly to Klein, Seydoux (also starring in Berlinale opener Farewell, My Queen) manages to provide one of her meatier roles to date, especially when the Louise character takes on more substance in the final reels. Costume designer Ann Van Bree (Toto the Hero) deserves particularly credit for transforming the typically sultry actress into a working class toughie sporting a discount holiday sweater and knee-high white leather boots.
In a short but pertinent role, Gillian Anderson plays a vacationing upper class mom who crosses Simon’s path, and the way he longingly eyes her reveals how there are certain things you can never steal.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Vega Film, Archipel 33
Cast: Lea Seydoux, Kacey Mottet Klein, Gillian Anderson, Martin Compston, Yann Tregouet, Johan Libereau, Gabin Lefebvre, Jean-Francois Stevenin
Director: Ursula Meier
Screenwriter: Ursula Meier, Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand
Producers: Ruth Waldburger, Denis Freyd
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Ivan Niclass
Music: John Parish
Costume designer: Anna Van Bree
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Sales Agent: Memento Films
No rating, 97 minutes
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