French-Swiss director Ursula Meier called her audacious first theatrical feature, Home, a “reverse road movie,” in that it followed a family that lives 10 feet away from a uncompleted highway and refuses to leave once construction is completed and traffic screams past their doorway at all hours. They’re stuck in the place and dealing with a state of constant, destabilizing transition—and the delayed certainty that the status quo is unsustainable. Meier’s perceptive follow-up, Sister, lacks Home’s conceptual brilliance, but the two films share the notion of a family living on the fringes of society, and seemingly doomed to drop off altogether. Where the earlier film had the relief of whimsy—having a house by the freeway is as much about choice as a lack of means—Sister deals more conventionally with the reality of living hand-to-mouth.
In an unusually subtle performance by a child actor, Kacey Mottet Klein stars as a crafty ragamuffin who has created his own black-market business by stealing skis and other supplies from the vacationers at an Alpine ski resort. Teaming up with a staffer at the resort restaurant—played by Martin Compston, himself once a superb child actor 10 years ago in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen—Klein scrapes together enough money to keep him and his fuck-up sister Léa Seydoux living in an exceedingly modest tower apartment. But beyond the immediate dangers of getting caught, long-term problems threaten the pair, from Seydoux’s foul temperament and inability to hold down a job to the difficulty of stealing from the same site over and over.
Meier documents Klein’s day-to-day thievery like the Dardennes did with the eponymous character in Rosetta, depicting him as a creature of need who doesn’t consider the moral consequences—or even the strategic value—of doing whatever it takes to get by. But as more is revealed about the true nature of Klein and Seydoux’s relationship, Sister shifts into something more intimate and affecting, revealing a bond that’s simultaneously powerful and tenuous. In spite of a setting that has characters in need co-existing with chalet-dwellers, Meier resists the temptation to contrast the noble scrappers with the grotesques who have it all. To the extent she cares about class, Sister is about the condition of being poor, and its corrosive effect on human relationships.